The new submarine thriller Hunter Killer is like a transmission from an alternate reality, one in which American and Russian presidents still act with some semblance of dignity, where high-level officials still regularly demonstrate professionalism, and where spittle-flecked, treasonous lunacy is still regarded as an aberration and not just, well, shrug, the way things are now. Of course, military movies like this have always trafficked in a kind of comforting fantasy: They present us with apocalyptic situations, but then reassure us that, no matter how close things come to the brink, someone, somewhere will eventually do the right thing at the last minute and save the world from calamity.
Well, inject that shit directly into my veins, man. Hunter Killer won’t win any awards for originality, but it may win a couple for the brazenness with which it stacks clichés upon clichés. Basically, it’s Crimson Tide meets Lone Survivor meets Under Siege meets a Russian variation on Olympus Has Fallen, with a bit of Geostorm thrown in. At least three of those movies are pretty good, so the overall math works in the film’s favor.
Hunter Killer follows the USS Arkansas, a submarine captained by working-class Navy lifer Joe Glass (Gerard Butler), as it’s sent to investigate the sinking of another sub by Russians in the icy waters of the Barents Sea, and finds itself in the middle of an international crisis. The Russian president (Alexander Diachenko) has been overthrown by his defense minister during a visit to the naval base on Kola Bay, in the country’s far northwest, and the traitors want to lure the Americans into a confrontation.
In order to stop them, a group of Navy SEALs, who’ve already infiltrated Kola Bay to observe suspicious goings-on at the base, are ordered by Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common) back at the Pentagon to save the Russian president from his captors by kidnapping him and stowing him aboard the Arkansas. But in order to get to the base, the Arkansas has to navigate the mine-strewn waters of the Murmansk Fjord. To do so, it must rely on … Russian submarine captain Andropov (the late Michael Nyqvist), whom it has saved from the wreckage of another sunken vessel and is holding as a prisoner of war.
Needless to say, this creates turmoil among the already-tense crew of the American submarine, most of whom are convinced these Russians killed their fellow sailors on the other sub. Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., Fisk is getting yelled at by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gary Oldman, because why not), who thinks his kidnapping plan is insane. Which, to be fair, it is. But everybody seems to understand that they have to work together so we don’t all die.
Oh, and the president of the United States is a wise blonde lady, because this film was shot in the summer of 2016. She doesn’t get much to do, because in movies like this the commander-in-chief is mostly there to look stoic and thoughtful for a few seconds. Back in the day, such pro forma scenes often felt vaguely propagandistic; I remember groaning a little when stock footage of Bill Clinton showed up at the end of Crimson Tide. Now, it’s nice to spend a couple of hours in a fictional world where we don’t have to worry about the American president doing something ruinously idiotic and evil. It plays like a nostalgic fairy tale.
And it’s a fairly exciting one, despite being largely predictable and occasionally ridiculous. Most submarine pictures tend to confine themselves to the world of the sub itself — the better to exploit the tense, high-pressure environment — but Hunter Killer adds urgency by cutting back and forth between its different settings. Each plot point is seen from multiple angles: The bigwigs at the Pentagon watch through the SEAL Team’s surveillance cameras; the submarines and ships use periscopes and radars and radio transmissions; the bad guys who’ve taken over the Russian base look out through their windows. As a result, we can see the misunderstandings and provocations (both intended and unintended) pile up, like a slow-motion train wreck. It’s a clever way to provide dramatic and geopolitical context while remaining focused on the action. So what if this movie and Johnny English Strikes Again basically share the same ending?
Butler has become a bit of a joke in recent years, as he’s tried to claim a cut-rate version of Harrison Ford’s old mantle as the grizzled, reliable Establishment hero called on to be tough and humble in moments of crisis. He’s well-suited for his part here, however, as all it really requires of him is that he stand and act authoritative. This is the fundamental irony of the submarine movie, which remains one of the more dependable of macho action subgenres: Most of the drama is built around people standing around and talking, usually about chains of command and tactics and strategy. Mainly because the setting itself — a crowded metal tube floating thousands of feet under the sea — is already an inherently tense one. The formula is hard to screw up, and while Hunter Killer may add a few variations, even a couple of silly ones, it knows not to mess too much with what works.