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.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

2016 #69
Kenneth Branagh | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Russia / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Jack Ryan: Shadow RecruitKenneth Branagh, who once used to direct films based on Shakespeare and opera and that kind of thing, seems to have carved himself a place as a jobbing blockbuster director so far this decade: it started with a spot in Marvel’s then-burgeoning universe, adapting Thor; saw arguably its greatest success with the live-action remake of Disney’s Cinderella; and he’s now working on an adaptation of young adult action-adventure Artemis Fowl — all released by Walt Disney Pictures, incidentally.

In amongst those, he helmed this: a second attempt (after 2002’s The Sum of All Fears) to relaunch (after a sortoftrilogy in the early ’90s) Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst-cum-spy (the titular Mr Ryan, obviously) as a Bond/Bourne-rivaling action-thriller franchise. It didn’t work. (Next try: make it a TV series for Amazon.) While I can’t pretend to be shedding any tears over the wasted opportunity of not getting another spy franchise, that’s not for lack of enjoyment: demonstrating perhaps even more versatility than with his comic book adaptation (which was kinda Shakespearean, really) or his Disney fairytale (which was a grandiose period drama, really), here Branagh managed to craft a very creditable action-thriller — with emphasis on the latter, an uncommon choice these days. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t catch on.

Rather than going back to Clancy’s novels, Shadow Recruit chooses to relocate Ryan to the present day, and takes its inspiration from a 2007 Black List screenplay called Dubai. Dubai is, of course, a notoriously pricey Middle Eastern city, and therefore we naturally assume rich in oil. Shadow Recruit’s plot begins with the US refusing to veto a pipeline that will damage Russian oil interests — somehow, I suspect there wasn’t too much re-writing required here. Anyway, following this decision, Afghanistan veteran turned undercover CIA financial analyst Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) uncovers a plot to crash the value of the dollar, which will lead to a new Great Depression. Dispatched to Moscow to investigate, Badass Branaghhe comes up against oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), the architect of the plan, which will be instigated by a massive terrorist attack on US soil. Unless Ryan can stop him, of course — with the help of his handler (Kevin Costner), and his fiancée Cathy (Keira Knightley), who’s followed him to Russia because she thinks he’s having an affair. I mean, he was sneaking around a lot…

As I said, the film wasn’t a success, either critically or commercially — despite casting a young, theoretically popular lead in Chris Pine, it didn’t attract the young audience needed to produce blockbuster numbers these days. I guess playing the “thriller” rather than “action” card didn’t pay off, so maybe a TV series is a smarter move after all? I guess we’ll see. Anyway, I think the reaction has been unduly harsh, because Shadow Recruit is very effective at what it sets out to do, and is, in my view, easily the most entertaining Jack Ryan movie since at least the first, The Hunt for Red October. Perhaps that’s damning with faint praise: I was disappointed by both Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger when I finally watched them in 2014, and I described Sum of All Fears as “an adequately entertaining two hours. Otherwise, it’s nothing special.”

Shadow Recruit probably isn’t anything special either, mind. Branagh manages to mount a few excellent sequences, including a very tense dinner / infiltration combo in the middle of the film, where Cathy has to keep Cherevin occupied while Ryan nips over the road and breaks into the oligarch’s office, which develops into a solid car chase. The dynamic is also Just going for a runa little different to the action-thriller norm. Ryan has skills leftover from his military days, but he’s not a one-man army like Bond or Bourne — he needs help both on the ground and from tech guys behind the scenes, who play a vital role in… well, I was going to say “the climax”, but it’s “the bit just before the climax”. The climax is a chase around New York, because of course you have to end with a chase.

This was meant to be a defence of Shadow Recruit and I feel like I’m doing a poor job. Thing is, it’s not up to the quality of the much-mentioned Two Bs when they’re at their best, but its relatively plot-and-character-orientated style distinguishes it from those franchises’ regular MOs. Plus Branagh brings a greater cinematic quality than you’ll find in, say, that Spooks movie, meaning Shadow Recruit straddles the divide between TV-level spying and big-screen action in a way that TV spin-off wanted to but couldn’t really manage. Perhaps the character really will work better in a big-budget TV series, then?

4 out of 5

Clear and Present Danger (1994)

2014 #67
Phillip Noyce | 135 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Clear and Present DangerI don’t know if it says more about me or the two Harrison Ford-starring Jack Ryan movies that I wrote 250 words of this review before I realised I was actually talking about Patriot Games. Weirdly, it’s this sequel that I thought was better.

This time, Ryan finds himself getting a promotion thanks to his boss falling ill, just as a crisis explodes around drugs trafficking from Mexico to the US: a friend of the President is killed by the cartels, then exposed as being in cahoots with them. Uh-oh! Behind closed doors, and unbeknownst to Ryan, elements within the government plot to illegally send a super-secret squad into Mexico and kill those so-and-sos. As Ryan investigates the to-do legally, he begins to suspect something else is going on…

Like its predecessor, the story for Clear and Present Danger winds out across multiple threads that aren’t directly connected for quite some time. However, their interrelation is a bit clearer, making the film feel more focused, in spite of its boosted running time. The plot isn’t exactly inspiring, sadly, but it does allow for a few more memorable sequences: an alleyway ambush on an American convoy, with Ryan in the thick of the action (a scenario which is apparently still used to train real troops); and, in a very modern twist, a sequence where Ryan hacks into a corrupt colleague’s computer, while the colleague tries to delete the files Ryan is looking for. Pretty cutting-edge for 1994.

ConfrontationIt’ll come as no surprise that Ryan ends up exposing the nasty conspiracy — which goes as high as the President! But what does a good American patriot do when he finds out the practically-holy President has committed such a sin?! The novel ends with Ryan confronting him… and then deciding not to expose his secret war. Presumably this is thanks to Clancy’s obviously-Conservative political views. “Liberal” Hollywood, on the other hand, has given us a more just — and more satisfying — conclusion. Thank goodness for that.

Though an improvement on its immediate predecessor, I wouldn’t say Clear and Present Danger was quite a stand-out addition to the espionage genre. Following an aborted attempt to restart the franchise eight years later in The Sum of All Fears, and what looks to be another twelve years after that, in last January’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, perhaps Jack Ryan’s popularity is destined to remain literary.

3 out of 5

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is available on Now TV now and premieres on Sky Movies Premiere this Friday.

Patriot Games (1992)

2014 #53
Phillip Noyce | 112 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Patriot GamesA sequel to The Hunt for Red October in technicalities only (it’s another Jack Ryan adaptation, but he’s been recast; only one actor returns, in fact), Patriot Games is another political/espionage thriller from the pen of Tom Clancy.

On a working holiday in the UK, former CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) coincidentally thwarts an IRA assassination attempt on members of the royal family, killing one of the assailants. Also among the terrorists was the dead one’s brother (Sean Bean), who sets off on some new terrorising plot that ultimately leads him to the US, where he plans revenge…

That’s more or less a summary, anyway, because Patriot Games is a sprawling tale. Although most of the major characters start off connected by that failed assassination, they soon splinter to go about their business in unconnected sequences, which finally come back together towards the end. To describe it as “novelistic” might be obvious, considering it’s based on a novel, but it’s not been streamlined for the big screen. The 112-minute runtime (PAL) looks speedy by today’s standards, when every blockbuster comfortably passes two hours, but it’s a lengthy narrative from a time when big movies were less overblown and got on with things — tell this amount of story today and you’d probably pass the three-hour mark.

Unfortunately, sometimes it feels like Patriot Games has. Progressing multiple separate narratives gives a disjointed feel, leaving the viewer waiting for it to all tie together in some way. The storytelling is fitfully slow and kind of baggy, lacking pace. Oirish, to be sureThere’s a nasty synth score, just to make things drag more. There are some moments of brilliance though, not least the beautifully-shot boat chase climax. There’s also the dubious joy of seeing Sheffield’s most famous son, Sean Bean, doing an Irish accent. Co-terrorist Polly Walker is English though — twist! Not that her subplot really goes anywhere. Possibly she just couldn’t do the accent.

Amusement comes unintentionally, and mainly thanks to its depiction of the Irish characters. One’s called Paddy O’Neill. No, really. Another seems to spend his time just sat around watching Clannad videos.

Given its pedigree you’d expect Patriot Games to be a classic ’90s thriller. I’ve always been a bit surprised that it’s often around, but not more talked about. Now that I’ve seen it, I see why. Disappointing.

3 out of 5

Patriot Games is on More4 tonight at 9pm. The most recent Jack Ryan movie, Shadow Recruit, is available on Now TV now and premieres on Sky Movies Premiere this Friday.

Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the second Harrison Ford-starring Jack Ryan adaptation, Clear and Present Danger.