Published on June 6th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
The Hunt for Red October 
Summary: A smarter-than-average action flick with a strong performance from Sean Connery--although it's REALLY tough to buy him as a Soviet. The script spoon-feeds us a bit.
PG | 134 min.
Director: John McTiernan
Screenplay: Larry Ferguson & Donald Stewart (based on Tom Clancy’s novel)
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Sean Connery, Scott Glenn
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Box Office: $122,012,643 (#6 of 1990)
Oscar Wins: Best Sound Editing
If you want tension in your action flick, few settings will create it like throwing your cameras into a tin can full of men that are equal parts scared and anxious before sinking it 800 feet below sea level. You think your office cubicle is a tight work space?
In 1990, Tom Clancy was merely the author of a few military thrillers that lined the shelves of veterans and wannabe war heroes. With Paramount’s big screen adaptation of his 1984 debut novel The Hunt for Red October, Clancy was on the brink of becoming a household name. Fast forward to 2014 and this guy’s name has been attached to a litter of best sellers, box office blockbusters and popular video games. In short, Clancy has been one of the most prolific names in entertainment of the past quarter-century.
Like his fellow scribe John Grisham, Clancy benefitted from an outstanding initial adaptation, as The Hunt for Red October was well-received and a smash with audiences. Just to put it into perspective, this film raked in over $122 million in 1990 — nearly $100 million over its budget — and the only five pictures that made more dough that year were chick and family flicks. The Hunt for Red October was what dad picked to go see after sitting through Ghost, Pretty Woman and Home Alone with the wife and kids.
And who better to direct a big studio action flick at that time than John McTiernan? This guy was the hottest name in testosterone-laden cinema at the time thanks to 1987’s Predator and 1988’s legendary Die Hard both turning huge profits.
In The Hunt for Red October, CIA smart guy Dr. Jack Ryan, Ph.D. (Alec Baldwin), informs his colleagues that a large fleet from the Soviet Navy are apparently chasing one of their own ships, the Red October, commanded by Capt. First Rank Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), an icon of the seas. Red October is an extremely dangerous ship as it is capable of carrying an enormous payload of nuclear missiles and traveling in complete silence. While the Americans believe Ramius intends to attack Washington D.C., Ryan is convinced he actually wants to defect and in return, offer the sub up to the Yankees.
The title of the picture comes from the fact that everyone — Soviet and American — is hunting the Red October for their own reasons. The screenplay by Larry Ferguson (Alien 3, Highlander) & Oscar-winning scribe Donald Stewart (for 1982’s Missing) keeps the plot intriguing by not telling the audience what Ramius’s true objective is. The action and dialogue on the Soviet sub is kept ambiguous until a revealing conversation between Ramius and his right-hand man, played by Sam Neill, shows us a more human side to Connery’s previously one-dimensional character.
However, the script is also what sinks (PUN ALERT) The Hunt for Red October a bit in my eyes. Ferguson & Stewart spoon feed the viewers by having the Soviet characters speak English after the opening ten minutes. This device blurs the lines and makes you quickly forget the Red October is a Soviet ship, mostly because every actor onboard is either British or Scottish.
In addition to Connery and Neill, Brit Tim Curry and Swede Stellan Skarsgård were cast as Soviet naval officers. It wouldn’t be so hard to keep track if these guys were speaking Russian — but then again it’s hard to say Paramount Pictures made a bad call considering the flick raked in nearly 7-times its budget at the box office.
Cinematographer Jan de Bont, who shot Die Hard and Basic Instinct, makes this a less claustrophobic picture than submarine masterpiece Das Boot by giving us wide shots over the ocean as the massive ships surface. De Bont makes the audience stare in awe at the subs, especially when we track behind Jack through a gigantic hangar where the ships are being built.
This flick’s plot boils down to another Cold War pissing contest between the Soviets and Americans but the impact is lessened from 1984’s Red Dawn, for example, because by this time the conflict had ended. The Hunt for Red October is set in the mid-1980s, but by March 1990, the Berlin Wall was almost completely destroyed.
Connery’s character is not unlike Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, as he’s taken a mission into his own hands. Like Kurtz, Ramius has knowingly disobeyed his superiors and may have crossed the border of insanity. But unlike Marlin Brando’s classic character, Ramius’s followers aren’t quite sure about their leader, with the exception of Neill’s Capt. Vasily Borodin. This guy represents the loyal soldier who clings to Ramius’s orders although it’s obvious the man is completely reckless.
Keeping with the Apocalypse Now comparison, Skarsgård’s character Capt. Viktor Tupolev is akin to Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard. Tupolev is essentially the villain of the film after Ramius becomes more of an anti-hero. Tupolev is the true Soviet loyalist, hunting down his own comrade. Skarsgård also provides maybe the most masculine, badass moment from The Hunt for Red October when hundreds of feet below sea level, he takes a slow drag from his smoke and tells the nearest officer, “Take the reactor to 105!” … I have no clue what that means but it’s cool as shit when he says it.
Jack Ryan may be the marquee character in this picture but Ramius is the most interesting figure, with Connery delivering one of his most effective performances. Ryan proves to be a unique action film protagonist. He uses a weapon in only one scene, more often using his brain to strategize. Interestingly, he’s also afraid of flying and doesn’t seem to sleep much.
In the end, The Hunt for Red October is a more sophisticated action blockbuster than most as it’s not a simple good guy vs. bad guy routine. The heavy amount of Naval lingo may lose some viewers — as it did me in sections — but these characters are fun to watch. Of course, the film does end on an obvious note of American idealism, which is disappointing. It also makes the Soviets look pretty stupid with a quick resolution.
Perhaps the most American line in the entire movie comes from Sam Neill as he utters his last words, “I would like to have seen Montana.”
… said no one, ever.