The Movie Guru: Gerard Butler solid in surprisingly satisfying ‘Hunter Killer’
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What: “Hunter Killer.”
Rated: R for violence and some lanugage.
Screenplay by: Arne L. Schmidt and Jamie Moss.
Based on: the novel “Firing Point” by George Wallace and Don Keith.
Starring: Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Common, Linda Cardellini, Toby Shtephens and more.
Grade: Two and a half stars.
Sometimes, a well-made movie is worth more than a wildly creative one.
A surprising example of this is “Hunter Killer,” the Gerard Butler-helmed submarine thriller opening this weekend. It’s mostly a generic-brand knockoff of “The Hunt for Red October,” but it also has decent acting, surprisingly good pacing, and some genuinely tense moments. It’s wildly cliche but also surprisingly satisfying, and if you squint, it’s possible there might even be some sort of deeper modern relevance. Taken all together, there are a lot worse ways to spend an evening at the movie theater.
The plot starts with two subs, one American and one Russian, that are both destroyed very quickly. Untangling what happened quickly becomes the job of submarine captain Joe Glass (Gerard Butler), ethical Navy Brass John Fisk (Common), grizzled SEAL team leader Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens) and professional-yet-also-ethical NSA agent Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini). We get very, very close to World War III at one point, at least according to various characters, and Gary Oldman is there mostly to wear a uniform and shout at people.
As many cliches as possible
The entire script is a textbook example of how to best and most effectively use as many cliches as humanly possible. At no point does the movie actually get frightening—there’s clearly no way these characters will lose—but it plays the familiar rhythms of espionage action movies in a crisp, deeply satisfying manner. Part of the reason cliches become cliches is that they do their jobs well, and “Hunter Killer” uses just the right cliches at just the right moments to create a surprisingly entertaining adventure.
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Sometimes, however, the cliches go too far. Butler gets his manly-yet-sensitive personality established quickly by going hunting but not shooting a buck because it had a mate and child. It’s the kind of painfully obvious visual shorthand I would expect from an old-school Steven Seagal movie, and I wish whoever had edited the script had used a slightly firmer hand.
Whether it ever raises itself beyond those cliches is a slightly more complicated question. It’s entirely possible to argue that the movie is telling audiences to rise beyond the things that arbitrarily divide us and to band together to destroy the radical elements poisoning both sides. It’s also entirely possible to argue that the movie’s only theme was the usual military “band of brothers” concept that was stated outright in the script several times. There’s solid evidence for both.
On the casting front, Gerard Butler is essentially the slightly more solemn version of the same character he’s played in every movie he’s ever been in. Toby Stephens is solid as the grizzled captain, and a round of applause to the English actor for a solid Southern U.S. accent. Common and Cardinelli handle the usual “frantically running around in government buildings attempting to prevent disaster” portion of the movie with a believable intelligence. As for Oldman, I still haven’t entirely figured out what he was doing there.
Maybe he just appreciates good craftsmanship.