Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones.

Directed by John McTiernan. 1990.

Rated PG. Paramount tape, 134 min., Hi-Fi stereo. Andrew Sarris

I am still trying to figure out why this movie was such a big hit both as a novel and as a crowd-pleasing action movie in its theatrical release earlier this year. Even some of the movie's admirers wondered whether this pre-glasnost, pre-Gorbachev, Cold War-rooted melodrama would seem timely when moves toward democracy and disarmament seemed to be breaking out all over Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. As I write this review, however, the world seems dangerous again, but in the hot sands of Arabia rather than in the icy waters of the North Atlantic where the action of "The Hunt for Red October" explodes in a bizarre cat-and-mouse game.

The co-protagonists are a Soviet submarine commander (Connery) and a hunch-playing CIA analyst (Baldwin). Connery is planning to defect to the United States with his first-strike capability submarine. He has enlisted his officers for his desperate endeavor, and he has left behind a letter of intent so that there will be no chance of his officers' changing their minds. Consequently, the whole Russian navy sets out to find and destroy Connery's renegade sub.

Meanwhile, the Americans suspect that all this unusual Russian naval activity may be part of a first-strike Soviet attack on our shores. Only Baldwin guesses the truth. He sets out in a helicopter to join an American sub tracking Connery's more advanced and stealthy model. This is the only extensive physical action in the movie. The rest is radar screens, shots of underwater maneuvers involving subs and hyper-sophisticated torpedoes, and close-ups of striking faces reacting to the videogames of modern warfare.

This is the kind of movie that plays well on video because the characters are always stuck in some kind of enclosure. And the "plot" is repeatedly explained to one newcomer after another. There are two interesting subtexts: First, the grizzled Connery becomes not only Baldwin's surrogate father figure, but America's father figure as well! And second, except for some crazy Cold War holdouts on the Soviet side, everyone is effective in handling the most advanced technologies of the two nations to achieve a moderately "happy" ending. What holds everything together is Connery's dignity and authority in a role that might have been played by the late Walter Huston.