Most of the time when we talk movies, we celebrate films that are smart, tasteful, elegantly shot, and well-crafted. Then every once in a while you see one that’s silly and hammy and blotchy and kind of dumb, but its heart is in the right place, and you wonder if maybe that’s actually better. I forget who it was that said rock n’ roll is best when it’s almost bad, but the same can be true for movies. No one loves “Louie Louie” because of the clever lyrics and deft musicianship; people love it because of its irrepressible spirit.
Hunter Killer is a dumb movie with a good heart. It stars Gerard Butler, who is kind of like the “Louie Louie” of humans. He’s not the world’s greatest actor, he has neither Schwarzenegger’s brawn nor Tom Hardy’s mesmerizing good looks, and in this particular incarnation, he has a dye job that looks like absolute trash. But damned if I don’t want to watch him save the world with a submarine. He has… something. That glint in his eye. Something that says he’s a bit of a son of a bitch, but maybe he’s the right kind of son of a bitch.
Hunter Killer opens with an American submarine (a “hunter-killer” type attack submarine) shadowing its Russian counterpart underneath the polar ice. Suddenly there’s an explosion aboard the Russian sub, and the American one goes to investigate, only to vanish itself.
Obviously, the Americans — in the form of a level-headed rear admiral played by Common, and a spittle-spraying hawk admiral played by Gary Oldman, in one of his worst performances — need to find out just what the hell is going on down there. They need someone to investigate, but they’re damned near out of submarine captains at this point, so they have to send their most, er, unconventional one.
Smash cut to Gerard Butler as captain Joe Glass bow hunting for elk in the Scottish highlands. It seems he’s some kind of hunter-killer, get it? A camo-clad Glass lines up a glorious 10-pointer with his fancy bow and then… nothing. He lowers the bow. He can’t bring himself to do it. The beast is just too goddamned majestic.
It’s dumb but sweet. It’s like every cheesy action movie rolled into one — and basically feels exactly like the kind of supermarket dad novel Hunter Killer was adapted from (Firing Point, by George Wallace and Don Keith) — but not entirely in a bad way. It’s still lionizing the brawny uniform crew cut tough guy with cool military toys, but it’s also saying that the soul of masculinity is compassion and restraint. It’s saying that truly being tough means not having to kill some poor elk just to prove how tough you are.
Meanwhile, Admiral Gary Oldman is convinced that World War III is imminent and wants Glass to go in there guns a-blazing like Yosemite Sam and try to cripple the Russians before they can launch the attack that seems to be coming. It’s only an alliance between rear admiral Common and an NSA advisor played by Linda Cardellini that convinces the lady president played by Caroline Goodall to let Glass buy some more time. He’s got a crazy plan, but it just might work.
I won’t spoil too much of Joe Glass’s climactic mission, but suffice it to say, it plays out like The Hunt For Red October meets Crimson Tide by way of The Fast And The Furious. There is, shall we say, a high degree of difficulty. Hunter Killer is very much a working man’s Crimson Tide. Navy SEALS get involved, bad guy Russians foment a coup and shoot people execution style, and there’s even a scene where Joe Glass looks the Russian president in the face and utters the immortal line “we’re not so different, you and I.”
Compared to October and Crimson Tide, Hunter Killer does seem both derivative and magnificently unsubtle. The acting is also a lot worse (Butler, Common, and Cardellini are fine, but Oldman is uncharacteristically obnoxious, and Glass’s hawkish second in command, played by Carter MacEntyre, is overscrubbed and over the top, like he was ripped from a Kirk Cameron movie).
But compared to its contemporary military movie peers — 12 Strong, Mile 22, Sicario 2, etc.– Hunter Killer i a breath of fresh air. No, a protagonist trying to avert a war with Russia isn’t exactly groundbreaking. But compared to a movie where gum-chomping cool guy Josh Brolin kills 100 Mexicans on the pretext of fighting jihadism and the best you can say for it is that maybe it was supposed to be a critique of American power (it’s not, but I said maybe), yeah, I’ll take the dopey submarine movie about the everyman captain who was too much of a mensch to merc a deer.
Just like with people, you’ll forgive a lot for a movie if its heart is in the right place.