In the Barents Sea, beneath the huge icebergs, there is a Russian submarine patrolling, navigating the ice as it does so yet unaware that it is being followed by an American Hunter Killer submarine which is disguising itself by travelling in the Russian's wake. Although the Cold War is over, both East and West have a wary approach to one another, starkly aware that events could take an unfortunate turn should an arms race begin again, or an international incident put everyone on edge. But that is precisely what happens when the Russian sub suddenly explodes with a hole in its side; the Americans are shocked, for it was not they who fired - and then someone takes a shot at them.
It was back to the nineteen-eighties for Hunter Killer for an action thriller reminiscent of those days back in the Cold War where you knew where you stood in movie geopolitics, if you were in the West at least. While the Soviets were traipsing to their local fleapits to see patriotic war epics of various sizes, the Americans were keen to watch those self-same Soviets get their asses kicked by the American military (or at least a rogue element who could mow them down with machine gun fire with impunity), and this film was like watching one of those recruitment ad entertainments where the military were involved to provide the hardware to the filmmakers - and guidance, too.
Top Gun remains the most famous of those, and Hunter Killer was a lot like a Tony Scott film, only without the coloured filters on the camera lenses, and more enamoured of the U.S. Navy as represented by their submarine crews. In what amounted to an ensemble cast, Gerard Butler, who seemingly couldn't do his native Scottish accent anymore, was top-billed, leading his fans to anticipate one of his more lone wolf-style action flicks, but here he was very much the Captain of the ship and not about to get too reckless with their lives. Well, he did a bit, but purely for the sake of manufacturing tension of the sort every sub movie would employ since they became a thing.
Maybe this one harkened back to the fifties, with items like Run Silent Run Deep, for it seemed the more things changed, the more patriotic Hollywood stayed the same, but as many discovered when they gave this a try, it was so professionally done, not quite a Tom Clancy effort but in that vein, it proved more entertaining than you might expect. Despite the token girls as voices of reason (step forward Linda Cardellini), it was more or less a Boy's Own adventure all the way, even stretching to Toby Stephens as a specialist operative behind "enemy" lines with his small team of crack commandos. They were handy for discovering the Barents incident was down to a military coup in Russia, or an attempted one at any rate, where an Admiral (Michael Gor) has kidnapped the Russian President (Alexander Diachenko) at a Northern base.
As Stephens and his men try to rescue said President, back in Washington Gary Oldman was the hawkish politician deciding America must act swiftly and powerfully, so wants, well, World War III essentially. Considering this a bad thing, the film proceeded to ramp up the tension by having Butler and his sub head over to the downed Russian vessel which contains survivors, including in one of his last roles, Michael Nyqvist (their Captain) who he must work with to stop a huge conflict developing any further. If this was slamming the door in originality's face at every turn, for what it was Hunter Killer was a polished, decent suspenser with explosions and guns and shit for those who were not interested in anything pushing envelopes, simply content to present the basics of a military thriller and do it with the minimum of difficulty. Director Donovan Marsh was a firm hand at the controls, and the cast raised their voices in the appropriate places. Sometimes something unpretentious is exactly what you need. Music by Trevor Morris.
[Extras on Lionsgate's Blu-ray are an information-heavy audio commentary from Marsh, and a behind the scenes featurette.]