The Hunt for Red October Review

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by Casimir Harlow Nov 10, 2011 at 11:58 PM

    The Hunt for Red October Review
    Tom Clancy is one of the most successful authors in the world; he had the best-selling novel of the entire 1980s; and he is one of just three authors in the 90s whose first pressings have exceeded the 2 million mark (the others being John “The Firm” Grisham and Harry Potter’s J.K. Rawling). Famous for the military detail that goes into his works, his greatest creation is the character Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst who, over the course of Clancy’s books, reluctantly rises through the ranks to become Deputy Director of the CIA and, eventually, even the President of the US. Clancy’s first Jack Ryan novel was The Hunt for Red October, written back in 1984; it was followed by Patriot Games in 1987, The Cardinal of the Kremlin in 1988, the massively successful Clear and Present Danger in 1989, and The Sum of All Fears in 1991 – and that’s just the first half of his Ryan series. Four out of five of these novels have been made into films, although these adaptations were not without their difficulties; two of which going on to be disowned by the author himself. Over the course of the next month I plan to take a retrospective look at these Tom Clancy / Jack Ryan films; the casting decisions and changes in narrative necessary along the way; and the future for this great character, who is now in need of a third reboot. So, what went wrong with a franchise that had so much going for it? And one which started off so well...
    “When I was twelve, I helped my Daddy build a bomb shelter in our basement, because some damn fool parked a dozen warheads ninety miles off the coast of Florida. This thing could park a coupla' hundred warheads off Washington or New York and no-one would know anything about it until it was all over.”
    Set in 1984, The Hunt for Red October tells the tale of Russian sub-Captain Marko Ramius, commanding officer of Red October, an experimental, high-tech Typhoon-class nuclear submarine equipped with a revolutionary new ‘caterpillar drive’ propulsion system which, when equipped, renders the ship undetectable to standard sonar. His orders are to test the magnificent ship’s full capabilities, but, knowing the full ramifications of such a weapon – its ability to land off the coast of the US and launch a full array of nuclear-tipped missiles without any forewarning – he takes to the open sea in an attempt to reach the US, and defect; planning to hand this technology over to The West. When the Russians realise what he is up to, they unleash the entire Soviet fleet, racing after him with orders to sink him before he can reach America; they also inform the US Government that Ramius has gone insane, and plans to attack the US with this new weapon – hoping that the US do their job for them, and destroy the Red October long before its secrets can be revealed. In fact, only one lone CIA Analyst, Jack Ryan, manages to figure out what Ramius is up to, and it’s up to him to convince his superiors and make contact with the renegade Soviet sub-Captain before all hell breaks loose in the North Atlantic.
    I’ve often wondered why The Hunt for Red October was the first novel chosen for a film adaptation – in fact I wondered why it was adapted at all. Although it was written in 1984, it was set after the events in the 1987 book Patriot Games, which offer a far better introduction to the character of Jack Ryan; indeed Ryan almost takes a secondary role to the character of Marko Ramius in Red October; and perhaps the biggest argument against making an adaptation was the fact that, by the time it was released in 1990, the Cold War had officially ended. Indeed, this was also some 3 years after Patriot Games had been published, so I wondered why they would choose to adapt the novel that neither introduced the character properly, nor allowed him to take front seat, nor still carried any topical political relevance. Of course the reality was that production commenced on The Hunt for Red October long before Clancy wrote Patriot Games – back in 1985, when producer Mace Neufeld realised the potential in this story. It took him 18 months to secure backing from Paramount, and it wasn’t until ’89 that filming would actually begin. With news of the Cold War coming to an end, there was little that the production could do to avoid the issue, and so a time code was imposed at the start of the film, to remind audiences that the movie was set in 1984, back when such American vs. Soviet confrontations were more conceivable.
    “I've got a ten minute reserve... but I'm not allowed to invade that except in time of war.”
    “Listen, mister, if you don't get me on board that goddamn submarine, that just might be what you'll have! You got me? Now you have ten more minutes' worth of fuel, we stay here ten more minutes!”

    Casting was an interesting process; they originally approached Harrison Ford to play CIA analyst Jack Ryan, but he declined the role because he felt that it was secondary to the character of Marko Ramius (of course, somewhat ironically, Ford would go on to star as Ryan in the two subsequent Jack Ryan movies); eventually they cast Alec Baldwin in what was his first major film role. Opposite him we were to have Never Say Never Again’s Bond villain, Klaus Maria Brandauer, as the Soviet sub-Captain, Marko Ramius, but he pulled out at the last minute; the part would go to Bond himself, Sean Connery, given just two weeks’ notice before filming commenced.
    Despite all of this, the acting is amidst the best out of all the Tom Clancy / Jack Ryan film adaptations, the characterisation rich, and the cast peppered with familiar faces going way beyond just the two main characters. Baldwin hit a home run on his first big role, bringing an innate charisma and charm to the part, but also a heavy sense of weighty intellect behind it all – indeed much of his depiction of the character would go on to be imitated by later actors who would take up the mantle. Essentially, Ryan was a thinking man who was reluctant to, but not afraid of, going into actual combat – he is the first person to speak out when he solves a puzzle, or figures out what to do next; but he’s the last person to want to actually do it; as an analyst his job, after all, is to come up with the plan, but leave the actual action to the professionals on the ground. Baldwin nailed this, evident most clearly in the sequence where he shows his reluctance to do a briefing in front of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – and then himself hijacks the meeting just to get his point across to these very powerful answer-to-the-President people. Ryans intelligence, slight eccentricity and social clumsiness, but ultimate ability to lay it on the line when it counts makes him the perfect reluctant hero, and a real character to get behind – it was also a good kick-start to Baldwin’s career; easily the most successful of the brothers, and arguably the most talented, it’s a shame that he wasn’t available to reprise the role as it could have cemented what has turned out to be a fairly up-and-down career, only recently coming into his own with great supporting roles in films like The Cooler and The Aviator, and never really making it as big as he should.
    “I'm not an agent, I just write books for the CIA!”
    Numerous supporting characters pop up that you will recognise from films both before and since: the deep and distinctive voice of Vadar himself, James Earl Jones appears to be having an absolute blast as Ryan’s friend and mentor CIA Director of the Intelligence Jim Greer (he was the only actor to make the transition through three different Clancy adaptations, reprising the role in both of the pseudo-sequels); a pre-Silence of the Lambs Scott Glenn uses his real-life experiences as a US Marine to make for a convincing tough-but-fair sub-Captain; and a young Courtney Vance (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) helps heighten the tension as the expert sonar operator who thinks that he might be able to figure out a way of tracking the silent Red October.
    On the Soviet side of things we get a post-Dead Calm Sam Neil, who comes across as a good sport for taking a distinct backseat to the bigger players in a remarkably servile role as the Red October’s Executive Officer; Tim ‘Stephen King’s It’ Curry on expectedly weasel-like form as a loyal Soviet officer who has to be kept in the dark when it comes to the real plans for the Red October; and Stellan Skarsgard (Ronin) as the determined protégé of Ramius’s, who is sent to hunt him down and sink the Red October. Cameo roles for the likes of Richard Jordan (Dune, Logan’s Run) and Joss Ackland as chess-playing high-level intelligence officers, who skate around the sensitive subject with playful but diplomatic finesse, further add to the all-star cast, although I have to wonder what the hell kind of an accent Ackland was attempting – he sounds like he walked straight off the set of Lethal Weapon 2!
    “Behold, I am coming as a thief... and he gathered them all together in a place called Armageddon... and the Seventh Angel poured forth his bowl into the air, and a voice cried out from Heaven, saying, ‘It is done!... I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’”
    Talking about accents, it should be noted that the director chose an interesting tactic to accommodate the different nationalities presented – rather than have the Soviet characters speak Russian, or having them speak English with a fake Russian accent (as is generally the norm), the decision was made to have them all speak Russian for the first few minutes and then, mid-sentence during a dialogue scene, have them switch to English. It’s a clever ploy, to avoid the problems of ‘fake Russian accents’, whilst still making it a more English-friendly film. The only downside to this rather unique way of adapting to the different languages is that, towards the end, things get a little difficult to comprehend – it’s clear that the US and Russian crews can’t understand one another, but when Captain Ramius starts actually talking in English (rather than Russian – even if we hear English, as is the case over the rest of the movie), things do get a tiny bit confusing. Still, for the most part it works well.
    Of course I haven’t forgotten Sean Connery! I was saving the best until last. Although he only had short notice to join the cast before filming, arrived unprepared, and was his usual ‘difficult’ self on set, this was a defining role for the man in his post-Bond career (up there with The Rock). Harrison Ford turned down the role of Jack Ryan long before Connery was even cast as Ramius, but, if he had any concerns that the character of Ramius would overshadow Ryan, then this would only happen tenfold with the casting of someone as dominating as Connery. Bringing his stature and presence to bear, Connery really does shine through this film as the coolest sub-Captain to have ever lived; he gets most of the best lines, and most of the best scenes, and I only feel sorry for his crew because, perhaps in order to heighten the tension for audiences watching, his thought-process is guarded throughout, his orders often coming across as pure madness, but paying dividends in the end. The scene where he commands Ryan to turn the submarine head-on into the path of the torpedo is excellent, and, no matter how many times you watch the movie, and know the outcome, it’s still a superb moment. Connery’s Ramius is surely everything Clancy would have wanted the character to be: a great strategist and a superior sub-Captain – in fact you have to wonder whether anybody other than Connery could have convinced as a man who could actually plan and carry out the theft of a Soviet experimental nuclear submarine!
    “Moscow's not the worry, neither is the whole Soviet navy. I know their tactics, I have the advantage. The worry is the Americans. We meet the right sort, this will work. But if we get some buckaroo...”
    Despite the fact that this is clearly Connery’s baby, the rest of the cast do still shine in their various supporting roles, and it is a testament to Baldwin’s innate talent that, even at a young age, he manages to stand his own – for the most part – opposite such a stalwart heavyweight.
    Indeed making an action-thriller about submarines seems quite a daunting, somewhat unlikely task. The producers pitched the story as having the potential to do for submariners what Top Gun did for pilots, but how likely was that? Submarines are huge beasts – the fictional Red October was cited as being the size of a World War II Aircraft Carrier – and they don’t exactly move at speed. These things tunnel through the water at a rate that would avoid most speed camera penalties, so how exactly is a submarine chase / battle supposed to be exciting? Well, director John McTiernan, fresh from his success on Die Hard, certainly figured out a way because, notwithstanding the innate tension of claustrophobic films like Das Boot and Crimson Tide (and even the historically inaccurate U-571), this is, without a doubt, the most action-packed submarine thriller in existence. Indeed, the only thing that comes even close in action terms is the seminal sci-fi classic Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. You might not think about the Enterprise as a ‘submarine’, but the weapons and tactics of the ships are surprisingly similar (so much so that The Hunt for Red October would even be paid homage to in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, when an experimental Klingon Bird of Prey – capable of firing whilst cloaked – needs to be tracked).
    “Russian captains sometime turn suddenly to see if anyone's behind them. We call it ‘Crazy Ivan.’ The only thing you can do is go dead. Shut everything down and make like a hole in the water. The catch is: a boat this big doesn't exactly stop on a dime... and if we're too close, we'll drift right into the back of him.”
    With special effects still very limited (and no CG on the table in those days), miniatures were often employed, as well as full-scale mock-ups (the early shot of the Connery and Neil standing atop Red October certainly benefits from being real), and though some of the later ‘effects’ sequences don’t stand up all that well (the torpedo shattering on the hull of the submarine looks awful), it’s really amazing what they did manage to accomplish. Together with a thoroughly game cast, who really make you feel every bit of tension over the torpedo attacks and stealth manoeuvres undertaken, and with the rich authenticity carried over from Clancy’s own meticulously-researched novel (itself a Jane’s Guide-sized epic, detailing everything a filmmaker would need to know in the way of background into these machines), it was possible for McTiernan to craft some truly thrilling setpieces: from the blind, ‘breakneck’ navigation of the trenches to the ‘Crazy Ivan’ course-changes that could easily result in disaster; from the persistent, steadily increasing urgency of the torpedo pings on the sonar, to the emergency surface tactics, which result in the submarine blasting out of the water like some huge whale that even old Captain Ahab would be afraid of – it’s great stuff, and with the very real threat of imminent World War III on the table, the stakes don’t get much higher.
    Sure enough, fans of Clancy’s original novel would no doubt find fault with the film's deviations from the source material, not least in the climax – in the book, the water was positively teeming with shark-like attack submarines, both Soviet and US, and the final confrontation involved Red October doing a near-impossible broad-side crash into an enemy vessel in order to sink it. Whilst McTiernan’s film adaptation does not quite have this epic feel (indeed, the budget probably did not allow for it), the smaller scale stand-off does actually work remarkably well, and provides just as satisfying a conclusion.
    The Hunt for Red October is a great Cold War thriller, a classic made during a period where filmmakers could still get away with having clearly defined opponents, even if the lines of good and bad are readily blurred between Americans and Soviets. The current ‘War on Terror’ just does not allow for such satisfying standoffs, with the threat of global annihilation very real back in those days, and the Cold War backdrop a much better arena in which to play such deadly wargames. Raking in over $200 Million to its mere $30 Million budget, the movie’s success would guarantee that the Tom Clancy / Jack Ryan franchise would continue, and it is a testament to the excellent narrative, sharp script, solid characterisation, superb acting and tensely directed action that the film still has such enduring appeal after over 20 years. If you haven’t been introduced to Clancy’s world of high-tech military equipment, strategic manoeuvres and political machinations, and to his reluctant hero Jack Ryan; or to Connery’s powerhouse Captain Ramius, sub-commander extraordinaire, then I strongly recommend you go on The Hunt for Red October.
    "... and the sea will grant each man new hope, as sleep brings dreams of home."

    The Rundown

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