By Liam Lacey
In the current geopolitical climate, any military thriller risks having a shelf life less than an open tub of yoghurt, a problem that hobbles the submarine drama Hunter Killer. Based on the 2012 novel Firing Point, the film began principal photography way back in July 2016, a few months before the U.S. elections. And like a lot of people, the screenwriters guessed wrong: The American president here is a Hillary Clinton-esque Dover (Caroline Goodall).
Other elements are pure invention. The Russian president is the handsome, Mitt Romney-like Zakarin (Alexander Dianchenko), who gets kidnapped by rogue Minister of Defense, General Durov (Michael Gor) in a coup. Now it’s up to the Americans to restore the Russian government and save the world from nuclear war. The idea should be suspenseful but the premise feels so quaint it might as well be framed by Cinderella-like animated bluebirds.
The rescue falls to newly promoted, not-by-the-book submarine captain Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) to investigate the downing of an American submarine in the Barents Sea, off the coasts of Russia and Norway. In Washington, Rear Admiral John Fisk (rapper Common) and Admiral Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman in yet another hairdo and accent) argue and unload mouthfuls of exposition while the camera twirls around them trying to generate tension.
A plan is formed. Glass will take his “hunter killer” class sub to the scene of the crime. Meanwhile, a Naval Seals team of lookalike guys in beards and backpacks, led by Bill Beaman (English actor Toby Stephens) will sneak into Russia to surveil a marine base. Glass discovers the sunk American sub, but also finds a sunken Russian submarine, which still has trapped men aboard including Captain Andropov (the late Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist) who agrees to help Glass prevent a world war by helping navigate through mine-infested waters. Meanwhile, Beaman arrives at the Russian marine base just in time to witness the kidnapping of the Russian president.
In the standard so-crazy-it-might-work scheme, President Dover decides to use the Special Ops team to rescue the Russian president, and then rendezvous with the sub to escape with the Russian president to safe territory.
Hunter Killer has no shortage of manly men yelling, posturing, and exploding. As well as the subs, there’s a Russian warship and many rocket and torpedo explosions to follow. The action bounces between the underwater video-game action, the dull Special Ops raid, and many scenes in the Pentagon war room where the resident hawk (Oldman) throws fits and the two doves (Common and a barely used Linda Cardellini as a political analyst) plead for restraint
Butler has now twice played roles as a military type who saves American presidents (Olympus Has Fallen, London Has Fallen) so possibly he felt he was overdue saving a Russian leader. But he’s dolefully earnest here, suppressing the cocky swagger that can make him fun to watch. Similarly, director Donovan Marsh (Avenged) remains ploddingly straightforward in his execution as the movie sinks deep into straight-to-video depths.
For some reason, in this otherwise humour-free movie, the screenwriters (Arne Schmidt and Jamie Moss) decided to give Madame President the joke name “Ilene Dover,” possibly a swipe at Mrs. Clinton. If so, why not give it the full Austin Powers treatment — maybe a power-hungry Russian named Ivan Ellovanich or a lonely sailor who hides out in the torpedo room called Seaman Stains.
Hunter Killer. Directed by Donovan Marsh. Written by Arne Schmidt and Jamie Moss. Starring Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Common, Michael Gor, Michael Nyqvist. Opens wide October 26.