It’s time to crack open the Clancy. Tom Clancy time, and rather than look at the boring-looking Without Remorse on Prime, we’re going back to the movie that was meant to do for submarine captains what Top Gun did for fighter pilots. What kid hasn’t dreamed of ‘doing a Ramius’ and defecting from the Soviet Union in a prototype nuclear sub due to a spiritual revelation caused by suddenly becoming a widower? Well, maybe John McTiernan’s film didn’t quite have the cultural impact that Top Gun had, nor did it kick-start a cycle of movies starring Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Chris Pine and John Krasinski have collectively weakened the brand since then) But this film is really where the techno-thriller cycle starts, and while direct carry-overs are limited, The Hunt for Red October is still a highly influential film.
Clancy’s books make great beach-reads for day-dreaming boys, yet The Hunt for Red October baffled studio heads who thought the concepts were too complex for a movie. But with John McTiernan lured over from the game-changer Die Hard, there was a fresh angle to play. Thus Jack Ryan is introduced in a similar widescreen milieu of soft toys, plane-nerve remedies, airports baggage carousels and family, before Ryan takes the same long hard confrontational look at a submarine that Bruce Willis took at the Nakatomi Plaza. Similarly, McTiernan climaxes the film with some under-pressure wise-cracks and gunplay as Ryan takes on the sub’s saboteur in the sub’s missile bay. If the audience couldn’t follow every move of Ramius’ plans, at least Ryan provides an empathetic route through the narrative.
But The Hunt for Red October actually lands its big ideas; Ryan might seems like exactly the kind of ‘buckeroo’ that Ramius fears coming up against, but also fights a good fight to represent what Ramius calls ‘the right kind of American.’ What makes the right kind of American? Smarts, is the answer written on the card; Ramius is a killer, cold-bloodedly executing a potentially interfering party operative (Peter Firth) in an early, shocking scene. But he’s also a player, and the means by which he plans to thwart his bosses and deliver the sub to the US is ingenious. Like John McClane and Hans Gruber, Ryan and Ramius rarely share a frame, but everyone else gets caught up in their geo-political chess-match.
McTiernan piles on the A-grade trimmings; support from Sam Neill, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Tim Curry and Stellan Skarsgard, a thumping score from Basil Poledouris, the immaculate lensing of Jan de Bont. And the garnish is the cartoon politics; back in 1990, Ramius’s action seemed to suggest a capitulation, an admission from the Russian side that some kind of surrender to capitalism was due (the film retains the setting of 1984). In 2021, it seems that a more virulent mutation of capitalism has resulted, so Clancy’s retro-politics seem like a soft-focus fantasy. But with no swearing, few improbabilities, lots of tough-guy acting and an engrossingly detailed narrative, The Hunt for Red October still makes sense in a Boys’ Own way even if the hopeful world described has long vanished.