The Hunt for Red October (1990)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Hunt for Red October

The hunt is on.

Country: USA
Language: English & Russian
Runtime: 135 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 2nd March 1990 (USA)
UK Release: 20th April 1990
Budget: $30 million
Worldwide Gross: $200.5 million

Stars
Sean Connery (Goldfinger, The Rock)
Alec Baldwin (Beetlejuice, The Shadow)
Scott Glenn (The Right Stuff, The Bourne Ultimatum)
Sam Neill (Omen III: The Final Conflict, Jurassic Park)
James Earl Jones (Star Wars, The Lion King)

Director
John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Thomas Crown Affair)

Screenwriters
Larry Ferguson (Highlander, Alien³)
Donald Stewart (Missing, Patriot Games)

Based on
The Hunt for Red October, a novel by Tom Clancy, the first to star Jack Ryan.


The Story
After the USSR launches a new type of submarine with an almost undetectable engine, its veteran captain, Marko Ramius, ignores his orders and heads for the US. As the Russians hunt for him and the Americans try to intercept him, one question is on both sides’ minds: is Ramius intending to defect or start a war?

Our Hero
CIA analyst Jack Ryan is something of an expert on Ramius, and the main voice insisting the Russian intends to defect. With just days to prove his theory, the normally desk-bound Ryan must venture out into the field — the “field” in this case being the stormy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Our Villain
Submarine captain Marko Ramius, a hero in the USSR who trained most of their fleet, has been entrusted with their latest top-secret vessel, the Red October… but what is he intending to do with it? If Ryan’s right, he’s not such a villain after all.

Best Supporting Character
Commander Bart Mancuso is the captain of the US submarine USS Dallas, the first to encounter the Red October and, thanks to its genius sonar technician, the only one able to track it. Scott Glenn’s performance was based on a real sub captain the cast spent time with, Thomas B. Fargo, whose friendly but authoritative manner and relationship with his crew inspired Glenn.

Memorable Quote
“‘Ryan, some things in here don’t react well to bullets.’ Yeah, like me. I don’t react well to bullets.” — Jack Ryan

Memorable Scene
As the Red October navigates an underwater pass only traversable thanks to detailed maps and precise timings, the silent engine fails, forcing them to engage the regular motors — which attracts the attention of the Soviets hunting them. With a torpedo on their trail, Ramius takes the precarious navigation into his own hands…

Technical Wizardry
With much of the action taking place in the cramped confines of various submarines (the Red October, the USS Dallas, and another Soviet sub, the V.K. Konovalov), cinematographer Jan de Bont realised they would need a way for viewers to quickly determine which submarine they were on, especially when cutting between action on multiple vessels. He decide to subtly vary the colour of the lighting on each sub — blue for Red October, red for the Dallas, and green for the Konovalov — so that they would be distinguishable without belabouring the point. It works: while watching the film, it’s never confusing which sub we’re supposed to be on.

Truly Special Effect
Apparently director John McTiernan wanted to realise the underwater action with CGI, until ILM pointed out it was nowhere near that advanced yet. Instead, most of the underwater shots are models — and not shot underwater, but in a smoke-filled warehouse. They look fantastic, with small CG additions (like plankton or the wake of propellers) helping to sell the visuals. On the downside, some of the pre-digital compositing is now really showing its age — Alec Baldwin’s hair is see-through in the final shot!

Next time…
With the film a huge success, naturally more Jack Ryan adaptations followed. Technically the first two, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, are sequels to Red October, but with Alec Baldwin busy the lead role was recast with Harrison Ford, so it feels more like the series starts over. For no apparent reason a fourth film in the series didn’t materialise, and so the series genuinely started over a decade later, with Ben Affleck playing a younger Ryan in The Sum of All Fears. That wasn’t a success, leading them to try again another decade later, with Chris Pine playing an even fresher Ryan in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. That wasn’t a success either, which has led them down the path of adapting the character for television, with John Krasinski playing another young Ryan in Amazon’s Jack Ryan.

Awards
1 Oscar (Sound Effects Editing)
2 Oscar nominations (Sound, Editing)
3 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Sean Connery), Production Design, Sound)

Verdict

Everything ages: Tom Clancy’s debut novel was credited with helping start the techno-thriller genre in the ’80s, which I guess made this film adaptation cutting-edge when it followed shortly afterwards. Now, it’s the best part of 30 years old and, even if it’s not exactly looking dated, it certainly doesn’t look current — they don’t make big-budget spy thrillers like this anymore. But maybe they should, because Red October’s qualities stand the test of time: its story is driven by well-drawn, interesting characters (the committed everyman hero; the moral enemy submarine commander; and so on) and an overall sense of suspense (who will find the sub first? And how soon? And what will they do then?), rather than elaborate stunts or computer-generated effects. I like the latter too, but there’s room for variety in the cinematic landscape. Well, at least we’ll always have minor classics like this to watch again and again.

The latest screen iteration of Tom Clancy’s hero can be seen in the TV series Jack Ryan, available to stream on Amazon Prime from today.

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The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

2016 #73
John McTiernan | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Once upon a time, John McTiernan was an action auteur, known for films that sat comfortably on the “mainstream modern classics” scale, like Predator, The Hunt for Red October, and, most of all, Die Hard. Then he made a couple of bombs (Rollerball and Basic), before ending up in a career hell of his own making thanks to some protracted legal battles. This thriller remake, starring Pierce Brosnan at the height of his Bond tenure (it was made between Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough), is the once-eminent director’s last well-regarded film.

Brosnan plays the titular Thomas Crown, an ultra-wealthy New York entrepreneur whose hobby is stealing art from museums. His latest theft attracts the attention of the insurance company’s investigator, Catherine Banning (Rene Russo), who is clever enough to see past the fancy gadgets and gang of Eastern European crooks placed to take the fall. So begins a game of cat and mouse, as Banning tries to catch the thief, while he tries to woo her, and she tries to resist his charms — while also using her womanly wiles to try to ensnare him.

It’s the latter that practically kicks The Thomas Crown Affair into the realms of the ‘erotic thriller’. Throw in a couple more sex scenes (and a few less high-profile contributors) and you’d have late-night TV filler. There’s virtually no swearing and certainly no violence, but with some gratuitous boobs you’ve got a 15/R-rated flick. The film doesn’t really need such titillation to attract attention, because it’s a strong cat-and-mouse thriller in its own right. On the other hand, it doesn’t shy away from sexuality and the part that could play in such a ‘game’, so in that respect it’s more plausible than a million other neutered movies.

McTiernan’s action background comes to the fore in a pair of extended heist scenes at either end of the movie, which are surely the standout parts. The seductions and plot twists in between these bookends are certainly entertaining and may even keep you guessing, but it’s the heists that pack the most entertainment. They’re the kind of thing we don’t see so much nowadays, at least not in mainstream movies, because any sequence designed to provide excitement is a fight of some kind, and most of those are shot in the shaky-cam style. There’s none of that palaver here, just perfectly choreographed cutting between the various players in each heist, and some well-chosen music — as if being ably to do awesome stuff accompanied by the James Bond Theme wasn’t cool enough, here Brosnan gets to do the same to Nina Simone’s Sinnerman.

Those scenes are reason enough to watch the film, in my opinion, but that’s not to denigrate what comes in between. Brosnan is mainly just charm personified as Crown, a kind of “Bond gone naughty” playboy (without the, y’know, murdering), while Russo makes Banning’s back-and-forth umming-and-ahing seem largely plausible, whereas in other hands it might’ve just come across as inconsistent character writing. Denis Leary and Frankie Faison bolster the entertainment as the pair of NYPD cops forced to work with Branning, while Faye Dunaway (star of the original film) appears in a handful of tacked-on cameo scenes as Crown’s psychiatrist.

The Thomas Crown Affair may not be the best film on any of its principals’ CVs (well, except perhaps for Russo’s), but it’s a consistently enjoyable light thriller with a couple of particularly memorable sequences and a fun central dynamic. Apparently it’s better than the original, too. There’s long been talk of a sequel, but it seems to have gone the way of McTiernan’s career, which is a shame.

4 out of 5

This review is part of 1999 Week.

Die Hard (1988)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #23

Twelve terrorists. One cop.
The odds are against John McClane…
That’s just the way he likes it.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 132 minutes
BBFC: 18 (1988) | 15 (2007)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th July 1988
UK Release: 3rd February 1989
First Seen: DVD, 2003

Stars
Bruce Willis (Twelve Monkeys, The Sixth Sense)
Alan Rickman (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Sense and Sensibility)
Reginald VelJohnson (Turner & Hooch, Die Hard 2)
Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard 2, Presumed Innocent)

Director
John McTiernan (Predator, The Hunt for Red October)

Screenwriters
Jeb Stuart (Another 48 Hrs., The Fugitive)
Steven E. de Souza (The Running Man, Beverly Hills Cop III)

Based on
Nothing Lasts Forever, a novel by Roderick Thorp.

The Story
While off-duty cop John McClane is visiting his estranged wife at her office Christmas party, a gang of terrorists enter the building and take the guests hostage. McClane avoids capture, making him their only hope of rescue…

Our Hero
One of New York’s finest unfortunately caught in the wrong place at the wrong time… or, as it turns out, the right place at the right time. They’re currently working on an “origin story” movie for cop John McClane, which is daft because Die Hard is his origin story — he may’ve become an action hero in later movies (I wouldn’t know, I still haven’t got beyond the second), but here McClane is just an ordinary cop. Well, a very committed ordinary cop, anyway.

Our Villain
Smart, witty, and thoroughly ruthless, Alan Rickman’s big-screen debut is a flawless turn that defined thriller villains (British-accented terrorists with a secret plan) for at least the next half-decade. No one does it better, though.

Best Supporting Character
McClane’s only real friend, Sgt. Al Powell is a beat cop on the outside who just happens to pick up his signal. Fortunately, he’s much smarter and more helpful than a team of FBI agents. Well, aren’t we all?

Memorable Quote
Hans Gruber: “Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?”
John McClane: “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
See above.

Memorable Scene
As Gruber lectures the collected hostages on how the terrorists have planned for every eventuality, a nearby elevator door pings open. One of the hostages screams, Gruber and co rush over, to find one of their compatriots dead with a message scrawled on his sweatshirt: “Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho.”

Truly Special Effect
When the bomb in the elevator shaft blows out the side of the building, the effect was accomplished by collecting virtually every camera flashbulb of a particularly powerful type and wiring them to the outside of the actual building to simulate the flash, then superimposing a shot of an actual explosive blowing a hole in an all-black miniature of the building.

Making of
The filmmakers struggled to find a way for McClane and Gruber to meet prior to the movie’s climax. The scene in which they do, where Gruber pretends to be one of the hostages, was dreamt up after it was discovered Alan Rickman could do a good American accent.

Previously on…
Die Hard is adapted from a novel, which is a sequel to one called The Detective, which was filmed in 1968 starring Frank Sinatra as the lead cop (called Joe Leland rather than John McClane). When production began on Die Hard, Fox were obligated to offer the lead to Sinatra. Fortunately for them, he turned it down.

Next time…
Lightning struck twice for unlucky John McClane when he got embroiled in another Christmastime terrorist incident in Die Hard 2, aka Die Harder; then Gruber’s brother sought revenge in trilogy-forming Die Hard with a Vengeance. Years later, someone realised there was money to be made, leading to poorly-received cash-in sequels Live Free or Die Hard, aka Die Hard 4.0, and A Good Day to Die Hard. A sixth is in development.

Awards
4 Oscar nominations (Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects — or, to put it another way: Sound, Effects, Editing, Sound Effects Editing)

What the Critics Said
“From its trailer, Die Hard looks like a typical action movie of the ’80s: a sweaty, bare-chested, all-American hero battles swarthy, heavily accented terrorist villains, accompanied by lots of high-tech explosions, vast sheets of breaking glass and enough sophisticated weaponry to account for the Pentagon’s budget overrun. As directed by John McTiernan, it turns out to be something more — the archetypical action movie of the ’80s, the perfection of the form. Sleekly engineered, impeccably staged and shrewdly dosed with humor and sentiment, Die Hard has everything but a personality.” — Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“Vulnerable but witty, McClane is a very well realised action hero who has set precedence as far as similar roles are concerned. […] Unlike Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Willis’ McClane is not the archetypal heroic figure that is invincible and untouchable. He gets his butt handed to him regularly and often finds himself panicking with frequent looks of nervousness and even fear.” — Billy’s Film Reviews

Verdict

The action movie to end all action movies… or, y’know, spawn endless sequels and rip-offs. But Die Hard really did perfect the mix: a capable but not superhuman hero, a genuinely threatening but enjoyable-to-watch villain, plenty of thrills and tension, but also humour and eminently quotable dialogue. And it’s set at Christmas (though originally released in July — what?!), which makes it ideal for seasonal counter-programming. What more could you ask for?

Prepare thyself… for #24.

Last Action Hero (1993)

2014 #108
John McTiernan | 126 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Last Action HeroThe first film to be advertised in space (no, really) sees movie-obsessed schoolboy Danny (Austin O’Brien) acquire a golden ticket that transports him into the latest movie staring his favourite action hero, Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger). With Danny’s knowledge of the genre’s clichés, Slater can solve the murder of his favourite second cousin and stop the machinations of sharpshooting henchman Benedict (Charles Dance).

Last Action Hero is effectively a spoof of action-thrillers, albeit with a real-world framing device instead of just leaping in Airplane-style. That has distinct pros and cons. In the former’s camp, the film is most alive in the first and third acts, when the two worlds initially collide and, later, when the fictional characters enter our world only to find that not everything’s the same as in the movies.

The downside is that the bulk of the middle is set in movie-world, and it’s simply too long to spend there. The film that Danny jumps in to, Jack Slater IV, deliberately has a highly generic action-thriller plot… but that means Last Action Hero plays like one too. There’s fun stuff centred around Danny’s “impossible” knowledge of what’s going on, as well as a playfulness with genre conventions, but it quickly runs out of ways to be unique, and we’re left having to sit through a terribly rote story with flashes of humour.

Brits make the best villainsThat said, it’s probably a good thing this isn’t a whole movie of “fictional characters in the real world” — you can imagine how that would play out; all the predictable “fish out of water” hijinks. However, at just over two hours, this isn’t a short film, and cutting out some of the middle wouldn’t have hurt.

It’s also a shame it ended up with a 15 certificate over here. It’s very much a PG-13 movie — it’s got that almost-kid-friendly tone, not to mention the pre-teen protagonist. These days it would surely get a 12A, even if changes were needed. I’d argue the disjunct between certificate-based expectations and the reality of the film accounted for some of its poor reception… but as it was a PG-13 in the US and went down badly there too, who knows.

Still, there are many memorable moments, like the (in)famous Arnie-in-Hamlet sequence, and Dance makes for an excellent adversary, both humorous and genuinely villainous. Although it could benefit from numerous tweaks across the board, there’s actually an awful lot to enjoy here, even if the highlights are mainly for fans of the specific genre it’s so accurately spoofing.

3 out of 5