INVISIBLE. SILENT. STOLEN.
In 1988, Die Hard had been such a tremendous hit that a sequel was inevitable. The film’s director, John McTiernan, was obviously considered for it. In the end, he chose to do something else. Adapting Tom Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October” may seem like a natural follow-up, and it certainly is a thriller, but one that depends less on explosions. As the Soviet Union crumbled, Hollywood offered a throwback to the intensity of the good old Cold War when East and West stared each other in the face, hoping to spot a weakness.
Taking Red October out for exercises
In 1984, Soviet Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) takes his submarine Red October out for exercises in the Atlantic. It is a new model with a so-called caterpillar drive that makes it silent and very hard to detect. However, Ramius and some of his closest officers have a different plan: they intend to defect. When the sub’s political officer becomes suspicious, Ramius wrings his neck and makes it look like a freak accident.
When Moscow realizes that they’ve lost contact with the sub, they start tracking it and notify U.S. authorities of an imminent threat. CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) has been studying Soviet submarines and Ramius in particular and doesn’t believe the official story; in his view, the captain would not suddenly snap and threaten to attack America with nuclear weapons. A defection is more likely… but how do you convince the military establishment and the government to take a chance on your theory before they destroy this potential threat?
Noble cold warrior
The final half-hour has more than its share of Die Hard style tension, as Ramius has to deal with both an armed traitor on Red October as well as a very hostile captain (Stellan Skarsgård) on another Soviet sub that’s firing one torpedo at him after another. Jack Ryan (in his first adventure, in literature and on screen) gets involved in all of this and Baldwin even gets to talk to himself in the vein of John McClane during a gun battle (”‘Ryan, some things in here don’t react well to bullets.’ Yeah, like me. I don’t react well to bullets.”). Those scenes don’t dominate, but are fun little ingredients.
McTiernan and his crew rely on a different kind of tension, emphasizing the strained relationship between the superpowers, one that can easily be ruined by participants who are too stupid and trigger-happy to realize that every conflict has deeply human emotions at its core. Ramius is a noble cold warrior who has recently lost his wife and probably never fully accepted the fact that his native Lithuania was occupied by Soviet forces; no wonder that he’s considering defection, and offering the yanks Red October in the process is a smart negotiating move. The climactic meeting between him and Ryan near the end is interesting, as this legend gets to tell the up-and-coming academic (and future president) a few things about the world outside of books.
Connery is perfect, looking very sharp in his hairpiece, and solidly supported by Baldwin and Sam Neill as Ramius’s faithful First Officer who dreams of Montana. The movie offers not only a scenario we can almost believe in, but convincing underwater scenes with nuclear subs engaging each other. Basil Poledouris also contributes with an excellent music score that has a wonderful “Hymn to Red October”.
The cast is almost completely void of women, and so is the crew. That’s how submarine thrillers were made not that long ago. But this is one of Hollywood’s best, showing the men behind inferior fare like Ice Station Zebra (1968) how it should be done in a smart and exciting way.
The Hunt for Red October 1990-U.S. 135 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Mace Neufeld. Directed by John McTiernan. Screenplay: Larry Ferguson, Donald Stewart. Novel: Tom Clancy. Cinematography: Jan De Bont. Music: Basil Poledouris. Cast: Sean Connery (Marko Ramius), Alec Baldwin (Jack Ryan), Scott Glenn (Bart Mancuso), Sam Neill, James Earl Jones, Joss Ackland… Tim Curry, Jeffrey Jones, Fred Dalton Thompson, Stellan Skarsgård.
Trivia: Klaus Maria Brandauer and Kevin Costner were reportedly considered as Ramius and Ryan. Jack Ryan next appeared in Patriot Games (1992).
Oscar: Best Sound Effects Editing.
Last word: “There were […] a lot of technical things I was really anxious to do, like have a really active camera. When I broke into the business, the rule was that you weren’t allowed to cut a moving camera shot into another moving camera shot. At the beginning of ‘Red October’, I had to fire an Academy Award-winning editor, because he literally didn’t know how to cut the stuff. He didn’t know how to deal with a moving camera and an active narrator.” (McTiernan, The Hollywood Interview)