The cool thing about the film adaptation THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER is that it manages to pull of the detached precision of Tom Clancy’s 1984 novel without veering into over-efficient territory. Clancy’s book was something I pored over again and again as a teen and its piles of technical knowhow can, at least notionally, drag a bit.
But of course, movies are different mediums and time is of the essence. That’s why it’s to director John McTiernan’s credit that THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER feels so thorough and so engaging without dropping the plot in a tangle of technological details. It keeps the action moving and intensifies the sunken tension in all the right places.
It helps that you get the silver fox version of Sean Connery as Soviet captain Marko Ramius, the dude in charge of the Red October nuclear sub. This is a monster of a submarine, with a pioneering caterpillar drive rendering it nearly undetectable. Ramius sets off to participate in some exercises, but it’s not long before it becomes apparent he’s up to something else.
Enter Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), CIA analyst. He saw Ramius at dinner once and has a lot to say about the captain, which comes in handy with the Americans get involved. The US believes that Ramius and his super-sub might have a nuke strike in mind, but Ryan thinks otherwise. It’s up to him to convince the right people of the right things before all kinds of hell break loose.
Accepting Connery as a Soviet submarine captain takes some doing on account of that lovely Scottish accent, but who the hell cares? He looks the part and brings the right visage and gravitas to a mythical personality. Plus, we also have to buy Tim Curry and Sam Neill as Soviets.
The fresh-faced Baldwin makes for a good averse hero. He does well to carve out his niche, telling himself over and over again that he should’ve just sent his information along in a memo. As it is, Ryan – complete with a pretty tenacious case of airsickness – has to get more than his feet wet in this intricate tale of international intrigue.
At the core of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER is the issue of truth. Every force involved, from the Americans to the Russians, has their own vague versions of Ramius’ motivation. We know more than the average bystander by virtue of cinematic insight, but McTiernan still keeps any exact purpose at a distance for a good while.
That puts Ryan in a race against time and folly, with the Russians changing stories and the Americans trying to prevent a war-starting debacle. It’s up to Baldwin’s character to hopscotch from ship to sub to helicopter to sub to try to talk some sense into whoever will listen. It’s up to all the other characters to doubt Ryan until the last possible second.
We know the routine but it’s satisfying to see it play out so well. THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER is a detailed, moderate film that only barely avoids claustrophobia and delivers satisfying, crusty tension with the sort of quality acting that makes you want a cigarette. It’s good enough to make you forget about that bulky final scene, complete with bullshit Columbus quote and silly blue tint.