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‘The Hunt for Red October’ (PG)By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 02, 1990
"The Hunt for Red October," the new Sean Connery movie based on the Tom Clancy novel, is a leviathan relic of an age that no longer exists. It's also a leviathan bore, big, clunky and ponderously overplotted. And that it lurches into view as a Cold War anachronism is, in fact, the picture's most fascinating feature. It makes it irrelevant in an astoundingly up-to-date way.
The bottom line is that "The Hunt for Red October" is "Star Trek VI," except that the actors here are all under 100 and the Scot is on the bridge instead of in the engine room. The one possible improvement is that Connery, who glowers wryly like Orson Welles in his Paul Masson period, has better hair than William Shatner. The Velcro fasteners are barely visible.
Here's what happens: On a cold December morning in Polyarnyy, the submarine Red October puts out to sea with Marko Ramius (Connery), the Soviets' most respected submarine commander, at the helm. The sub itself represents an advance in technology. Because of a special propulsion system, the Red October is virtually invisible to all conventional forms of detection. If it helps, think of it as a kind of stealth sub, capable of sneaking in close to one of our major cities without so much as causing a ripple in our defenses.
About 20 minutes of movie time is used to establish this. Maybe more.
Naturally, the U.S. military is concerned over the existence of this dangerous new weapon, especially after intelligence reports indicate that the sub has been launched and for some baffling reason the entire Soviet North Sea fleet is attempting to chase it down. The immediate assumption is that the Soviets have a lunatic on their hands. But a young hotshot named Ryan (Alec Baldwin) who specializes in naval research for the CIA figures out that instead of a madman, Ramius is a defector who may in fact be attempting to turn himself and his revolutionary new sub over to the Americans.
If Ryan's wrong? Well, it could be a problem. But he's sure enough of his conclusion to convince national security adviser Pelt (played with masterly relish by Richard Jordan) that an attempt to contact Ramius should be made before the military gets a crack at him. And so the game is afoot.
Problem is, though, that nothing much happens, at least not onscreen. "Die Hard" director John McTiernan and cinematographer Jan de Bont have crowded the frame with the candy-colored lights of flashing control boards, dials, sonar screens and digital readouts, and they've given the submarines' cramped quarters a rich, dense texture. But besides this and the actors' faces, which bear down on us in super-close-up, there isn't much to look at. When the action sequences finally come, the underwater images are murky and impossible to follow.
Plus there isn't much of it. Most of the film's action is either reported on (as in, "Torpedo impact in 20 seconds ... Torpedo impact in 15 seconds," etc.), or is represented by bright little blips on a sonar screen. And a lot of what we're shown borders on the ludicrous, unless nautical engineering has advanced to the point that nuclear subs are now able to two-wheel it around corners like hot rods.
By this stage of his career it's impossible for Connery to falter completely, but though his performance is immaculately controlled, his work here consists entirely of the eyebrow thing -- there's eyebrow up ... and eyebrow down. Eyebrow up ... eyebrow down. The two best scenes in the film belong not to Connery or Baldwin, but to the magnetic young actor Courtney B. Vance, as the sonar operator who skillfully deciphers the whereabouts of the elusive Red sub. As the American sub commander, Scott Glenn is flinty in his characteristic fashion, and vastly more interesting than Baldwin, who simmers at bit coolly for a would-be major star.
Clancy and McTiernan aren't much interested in character, though; they're interested in hardware. That, and the all-boy's-club glamour of the military. Clancy, who's the most eminently skimmable of modern popular novelists, gives us enough factual detail for three pictures, and this one makes you wish it were possible to skim through movies as well. In "Die Hard" McTiernan didn't transcend the project's disaster-movie roots, he simply overwhelmed them with cowboy pyrotechnics. "The Hunt for Red October" is, in its own peculiar way, a disaster movie as well, though not perhaps in the way the filmmakers intended. After spending about an hour with it, you begin to feel the walls of the theater closing in. You long for wide open spaces, or even just a room with a view. Most of all, what you want is to open the hatch and escape.
Copyright The Washington Post