Like a lot of mainstream genres, action can be defined in several different sub-genres. A couple of examples include hardcore action, which usually includes heavy violence and gore; action-comedy, in which the action can be the product of the comedy or the reason for it; and military action, where the action is set primarily in war scenarios. Hunter Killer, the new submarine film, falls under the last example, mixed heavily with one of the hardest action sub-genres to get right, the action-thriller. There are a lot of elements that need to fit perfectly together in order to keep the tension tight throughout the entirety of the film. Director Donovan Marsh follows in the footsteps of Tony Scott, who utilized his incredible cast (including Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman) to create one the best military action-thrillers in Crimson Tide. With the exception of Gerard Butler and Gary Oldman (who only has a few minutes of screen time), there isn’t anyone in Killer that even comes close to that level of notoriety, however, Marsh is able to pull together a cast of relative unknowns that emulates the same taut atmosphere to keep your heart pounding even when there isn’t any action happening on screen.
Based on the novel “Firing Point” by George Wallace and Don Keith, Killer stars Butler as Joe Glass, a self-trained submariner who is assigned to the lead the crew of an American submarine on a reconnaissance mission when another American sub goes missing in international waters. Glass is a self-made leader, rising through the ranks while working different jobs on various submarines without ever having gone through any formal military training. He knows what it takes to captain a sub, but more importantly, he isn’t a product of government bureaucracy, which allows him to see things differently than others, making him the most suited to defy orders when he believes them to be unnecessary or against the better interests of the whole.
After discovering that the American sub was fired upon without provocation, and that a Russian sub had been sabotaged from the inside to make it look like an American attack, they learn that the Russian military is staging a coup by taking the President of Russia (Alexander Diachenko) hostage. Despite the objections of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Charles Donnegan (Oldman), the mission becomes a rescue operation, teaming with Navy Seals on the ground in Russia to kidnap the Russian President to keep both countries from an all-out war.
There are three separate parts to the film that make up the whole: the submarine retrieval mission; the marine rescue; and base command that bridges the other two. Only a couple of characters cross over into different parts, otherwise, the actors are very secluded in their own worlds, never sharing screen time with any of their counterparts. This isolated structure adds to the depth of the tension, because we never know how the pieces will fall into place as each section plays by their own rules even as they work together for the same goal.
On the ground in Russia, four weary soldiers make decisions to keep what appears to be an enemy alive while not getting themselves killed or captured in the process; on the sub, Glass is forced to make real-time decisions despite what command wants because he can’t do his job unless he breaks a few rules, regardless of what his by-the-books XO (Carter MacIntyre) may think. And as Donnegan tries to convince the president (Caroline Goodall) to do what’s necessary to keep the situation from escalating into a nuclear war with preemptive strikes, the head of the command center (Common) and an NSA official (Linda Cardellini) try their best to keep any attacks from happening on either side.
One of the reasons tense-filled action films are hard to do is because to make them work, the audience must always believe everyone is in peril even though we know they aren’t. Submarine films are already inherently tense because of the claustrophobia aspect of being in tight spaces under water when the most simple mistake could cost you your life, but at the same time, the main set piece usually has our heroes on board, meaning they more than likely won’t be killed. As mentioned, Marsh does a terrific job of building the tension throughout the film by adding just enough surprises here and there to keep you guessing.
To keep the necessary tension alive, Marsh had to have a cast that worked well together with a pace that kept things moving at a steady rate, slowing down at just the right moments to put you into the mindset of those on the sub, while speeding things up to add texture to the action that goes beyond the routine depth charge. When the sub is required to go absolutely silent, and every crew member is afraid to breathe, you know there will be one moment where something happens that might risk making a sound. However, when that moment comes, you’re already so heavily invested in these characters and what’s happening that you don’t even know you’re holding your breath along with them until it does.
The script itself comes off as a routine thriller, where all of the key pieces are exactly where they should be, and nothing is all that surprising, but for some reason, you become invested so much in the characters that you hardly notice. The lynch pin of the cast is of course Butler, who, as an actor, hasn’t always been able to mix everything together perfectly throughout his career (see my review of Den of Thieves). But when he does it right, everything fires on all cylinders. He knows how to handle himself in an action movie where he’s required to showcase his glorified machismo in one moment, then soften himself to show how intellectual and charming he can be in the next.
The personality he conveys in Killer mixes all of that beautifully together, winning you over with a soft sensitivity, but one in where he isn’t afraid to defy the status quo to give his performance a rugged, hefty integrity. At the same time, he’d be nothing without those around him, and he plays off everyone with such ease, it’s easy to fall into the film’s more questionable scenarios and enjoy the film the way it should be enjoyed.
My Grade: A
A strong cast (including faith-based regular Sarah Drew) turn a routine faith-based production into a deeply emotional look at the cost of war, not only for the soldiers, but the wives and their families, teaching us the dangers of PTSD and how to overcome the tragedy that comes with ones patriotic duty. A
Next week, new movies include Bohemian Rhapsody, Nobody’s Fool and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.