This 2018 American action thriller, based on the 2012 novel ‘Firing Point’ by Don Keith and George Wallace, is directed by Donovan Marsh and stars Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Michael Nyqvist, Common and Toby Stephens.
As friction boils between American and Russian military forces, Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko) is captured by his Defence Minister Dmitri Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy). A military coup is staged.
Learning of the coup, US Admiral Donnegan (Oldman) tasks a team of Navy SEALS led by Lt Bill Beaman (Stephens) to infiltrate Russian soil and rescue the President before they instigate World War III and attack America to show their military might.
Commander Joe Glass (Butler) commands ‘Hunter Killer’ class submarine USS Omaha and is to rendezvous with Beaman and extract the President. But Glass will have far greater dangers to contend with including Russian submarine commander Sergei Andropov (Nyqvist) who claims to be an ally, but can he be trusted…?
Pop quiz. Name five good submarine movies in 10 seconds. Go.
Time’s up. What have we got? We have the stalwarts ‘The Hunt For Red October’, ‘Das Boot’ and ‘Crimson Tide’, right? Then possibly ‘U-571’ at a pinch, even though I said “good” movies. ‘K-19: The Widowmaker?’ Remember that?
Anything else? ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ or ‘X-Men: First Class’? Now you’re just clutching at straws. ‘Down Periscope’? I’ll accept that even though it’s total nonsense.
In a nutshell, it’s hard to do. The submarine genre is as dead as the western in mainstream cinema as it proves to be one of the most technically challenging and narrative dependant genres out there. You have the confines of a submarine no wider in places than a grown adult, and action based in a hulking great steel and iron vessel under water. It’s dark, it’s claustrophobic, it’s gritty, and to be fair it’s the best place to develop a really immersive, character-driven story. Yet nowadays, military thrillers are set above water for greater allowances for explosions, sweeping geographical action and mostly using stories based on the war on terror or armed force operations
But when we have Gerard Butler heading a new sub movie, you will have flashbacks of the loud, 2-D popcorn fests of ‘Olympus Has Fallen’, ‘300’ and even ‘Geostorm’. But wait, as much as we secretly all love the no-brainer action world of Butler, here he plays a pretty restrained and down to earth part. And he doesn’t even fire a gun. And still, the genre lets him down sadly.
As our captain, Butler has only one job to do – care and see over his submarine and his crew to get in, get the job done, and get out. He’ll do whatever it takes with his decorated military past as experience in navigating minefields, evading enemy subs or facing down those who have no faith in him. While the thought of what Butler could do in a submarine movie with a sub-machine gun, some grenades and outrageous stunts are exciting, director Donovan Marsh reins him in and allows him to do some good acting for a change based on character relations and a few great tense set-pieces.
The frantic calls around the ship as crew battle to prepare for diving out of range of torpedoes, or preparing to be hit, or making no noise at all to avoid sonic mines….it’s simple things, but all very humane things which capture you from the start. You can’t get distracted or bored, because the pressure and risk are so high at all times, your palms may even get a little sweaty and your breath will be baited before the all clear.
This is where the genre shines (it’s just a shame there’s not enough of it).
Cut between the submarine segments, we have top-billed Gary Oldman in about 10 minutes of edited screen time who heads up the political tension between America and Russia, barking orders about what to do and when to do it along with Common and Caroline Goodall as our US President. We also then have the Tom Clancy-esque Navy SEALS out in Russia led by a bearded, rugged Toby Stephens who talk tough, shoot often and deliver the oo-rah! might of America.
While this blend of genres may work on their own, together it proves a sloppy mix of story-telling, jumping from one to another just as you’re getting into something. While the cast is strong around Butler, Oldman, and Stephens in their segments, everything else just comes out a little generic and stitched together. I’d much prefer a stronger focus on Butler and the Hunter Killer itself, especially when the late great Michael Nyqvist arrives on the scene as a Russian sub captain holding a lot of aces up his sleeves in a “is he or isn’t’ he” a good guy. His screen time with Butler and the US crew only helps enhance the action they share.
When the finale arrives after the bullets fly and explosions ring out, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of ‘X-Men: First Class’ for some reason. I’ll leave that to you to discover, but it certainly goes on 20-minutes longer than it needs to, and sadly I was disengaged from the whole thing by then.
Submarine wise, technically, it’s brilliant. Wonderfully shot, edited and choreographed with satisfying SFX. It’s this I wanted to see more of without the need for bullets and bombs – just raw emotion mixed with doing your duty in the hardest environment possible where it feels the walls are closing in but the fate of the world and your colleagues rests on your decision.
Butler and the Hunter Killer didn’t disappoint and earn their star each. The rest of the film, however, sinks.
Directed by: Donovan Marsh
Starring: Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Common, Michael Nyqvist, Toby Stephens
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