The Hunt for Red October is a submarine thriller that moves at a steady, underwater pace. Adapted from Tom Clancy’s how-I-learned-to-stop-worrying- and-love-the-Cold-War best-seller, the film is a piece of heightened prosaic suspense; it comes at you in big, chewy gobs of exposition and dialogue.
The director, John McTiernan, is the heavy-metal action whiz who made Die Hard; he knows how to build one climax on top of another. This time, though, he isn’t out to clobber audiences — at least, not until the climactic climax (which features enough high explosives and tricky cross-cutting to send you home happy). McTiernan photographs his submarines lullingly, as though they were darkly gliding metallic whales, and he sets up Clancy’s interlocking plots so that the real tingle of the film lies in simply following the damned thing.
The film’s centerpiece is the Red October, a humongous ”typhoon-class” Russian submarine equipped with nuclear warheads and a silent propulsion system that allows it to go virtually undetected by sonar. Inside, it’s all glowing tiers and high-tech bric-a-brac; with the addition of a few strategically placed barstools, the set easily could have served as the latest three-story neon nightclub.
Ramius (Sean Connery), the Red October’s stately commander, is, we’re told, one of the most revered figures in the Soviet Navy. But now he and his carefully chosen cadre of officers want to defect to the United States. Naturally, both empires are after them. The Americans aren’t sure whether the Soviets are actually defecting or threatening to launch an invasion off the Eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, the Soviets, represented by a charmingly cagey ambassador (Joss Ackland), will do anything to avoid an embarrassment. They dispatch most of their underwater fleet to blow up the renegade sub.
The Hunt for Red October is colorful and exciting, yet unless you’re a young moviegoer, nothing in it takes you by complete surprise. (It’s less a nail-biter than a chin-stroker.) Based on a book President Reagan said was one of his favorites, the movie is set in 1984, before the ascendance of Gorbachev. Still, Clancy’s tone — if not his saber-rattling premise — has been updated to incorporate the end of the Cold War. For all its sleek bombast, the film never works up quite enough suspenseful energy to threaten to erupt into World War III.
The movie features a terrific (all-male) cast, even if a few of them end up overshadowed by Clancy’s busy plot. Connery is great when he assembles his men at the controls and issues imperious, monosyllabic commands. He has the kind of presence William Shatner must have been dreaming of in his Captain Kirk days. At other times, Ramius seems a bit stiff. Sporting a handsome, silver brush-cut toupee, Connery is like someone posing for a dollar bill.
The American actors fare better. At first, Alec Baldwin is disconcertingly boyish as Ryan, the anonymous CIA analyst thrust into heroism. But he grows on you; the film needs his slightly geeky, head-of-the-class wit. And there are crackerjack turns by Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Courtney B. Vance (as that new screen type, the techno-hipster), and, especially, Richard Jordan, who plays the national security adviser as a charmingly up-front Reagan-era buccaneer. Jordan has become a super-sly comedian, and you can feel his delight as he digs into those well-oiled Southern cadences. He turns American diplomatic gamesmanship into high style. B