The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Directed by John McTiernan

In the class of movies known as action-adventure, The Hunt for Red October stands out as one of the best and as one of the strangest because the action is relatively minimal and doesn’t play a huge role in generating the film’s suspense and tension.

Editing and music certainly do their jobs in evoking a quick pace, and there are indeed action scenes, but this movie is about a chess game beneath the seas. It’s facial expressions (and more often than not, non-expressions) that keep us at the edge of our seat.

Like the characters, it’s our uncertainty and anticipation of what the other guy will do that creates the suspense.

The role of the Russian submarine commander Captain Marko Ramius is played by Sean Connery and he is perfect in his role. It’s one of my favourite Connery parts and may be his best work.

The taciturn, self-contained qualities he brings to Ramius, as well as the mix of confidence and uncertainty, help to keep him a mysterious figure until the final third of the movie. We’re never quite sure what Connery’s captain really intends.

Connery’s Ramius is counter-balanced by Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst Jack Ryan. It’s great casting as Baldwin gives his Ryan a youthful, inexperienced quality mixed with nicely articulated intelligence.

The film is also well cast in its supporting roles, such as James Earl Jones as Admiral James Greer, Baldwin’s boss, and Scott Glenn as Captain Bart Mancuso of the American submarine. Both Jones and Glenn are also excellent counter-weights to Baldwin, in the same way Connery is, as they both emphasize understatement.

Director John McTiernan seems to be a master of thrillers. When he’s on his game, there are few films to equal the suspense and excitement of movies like Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October. He seems to have an intuitive sense for how these films work best. While action is essential to them, what really makes them compelling is the characters, particularly the relationships between his principal characters, in the case of Red October, Connery and Baldwin.

To repeat, his films are chess games, mental jousts between intelligent, intriguing adversaries. The Hunt for Red October works not because of action but because of the game being played by well-matched opponents.

On the DVD, The Hunt for Red October – Special Collector’s Edition, we get a transfer that is adequate at best. While some scenes have a nice, crisp image they are intercut with others that seem blurred and/or over-saturated. While not awful, it’s far from great. There is also a nice “making of” featurette and a commentary by McTiernan.

The Hunt for Red October is one of the few movies of its kind I find I’m able to watch again and again. It’s simply a really good film.

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