Hunter Killer review: Pace never flags in old-fashioned action thriller

This submarine film is far better than some of Gerard Butler's recent fare

Geoffrey Macnab
Thursday 25 October 2018 08:57
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Hunter Killer - Trailer

Dir: Donovan Marsh; Starring: Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Common, Toby Stephens, Zane Holtz, Michael Nyqvist, Caroline Goodall. Cert 15, 114 mins

Connoisseurs of cheesy, gung-ho, boys’ own action films will find plenty to relish in Hunter Killer. This is a curiously old-fashioned affair that feels as if it could have been made in the 1950s, or even earlier, with John Wayne or Gary Cooper instead of Gerard Butler in the lead role.

The filmmakers are also doing their best to improve US-Russian relations. Politicians and military chiefs on both sides may be either bungling or corrupt (often both) here, but American and Russian submarine commanders share the same essential heroism and decency. Butler’s character, Joe Glass, has his near mirror image in Captain Andropov (Michael Nyqvist, in one of his last roles before his untimely death last year). They’re both hardened but idealistic and patriotic professionals adored by their crews. “We are not enemies, we are brothers,” the men say of each other.

We’ve had a surfeit of submarine movies in recent years. The downside to the genre is self-evident. Claustrophobia is one obvious occupational hazard. Another, given the lack of privacy, is the near impossibility of romantic intrigue, unless flashbacks are thrown into the mix. Crew members tend to speak in jargon and spend much of their time staring at blinking, bleeping screens which tell them they’re about to be hit by missiles or that there are leaks in the engine rooms.

Hunter Killer sidesteps some of the problems by setting much of the action on dry ground. This may be one of the few Gerard Butler action movies in which he isn’t slugging it out with the baddies himself, mano a mano. Bar a few moments spent stalking a stag with a crossbow for recreation in Scotland, he spends the entire movie under the waves in his submarine.

Above ground, the heroics are left to Toby Stephens as Bill Beaman, an American special forces commander. He is leading his men on a secret mission to rescue the Russian president, who looks as if he is about to be toppled from power in a coup by one of his own officers.

Gary Oldman won an Oscar for his superb performance as Churchill in last year’s Darkest Hour. He is in no danger of repeating the feat here as the spineless and neurotic US Admiral, Charles Donnegan, always looking to shift the blame, even if doing so might mean causing a new world war. This is Oldman at the merest fraction of his usual horsepower. His tousled, Eighties boy band-style haircut doesn’t help.

There is only one female character with a significant talking part (Linda Cardinelli as the national security analyst) and the film often risks sinking under the deadweight of its own testosterone. At least director Donovan Marsh does a fair job of ratcheting up the tension. He treats the audience to plenty of scenes of Butler and his crew members looking ashen faced as they wait to see if missiles will hit them, or as they navigate through minefields and bail out the water in quiet desperation.

The chaos beneath the waves is matched by the commotion above them, as the American top brass agonise over how best to avoid nuclear holocaust. “Did we just start a war?” they ask in alarm. Marsh includes shoot-outs, chases, explosions and scenes of sailors desperately trying to clamber into submarines before the hatch shuts.

The pace never flags. Nor does Gerard Butler’s fortitude. No-one will mistake Hunter Killer for any kind of masterpiece but it’s definitely an upgrade on some of its star’s sillier recent vehicles like London Has Fallen and Gods Of Egypt.

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