Review: The Hunt for Red October (dir. by John McTiernan)


The Hunt for Red October

Fresh off the success of his two previous films, The Predator and Die Hard, John McTiernan was now tasked with adapting one of the 1980’s most popular novels with Tom Clancy’s debut techno-thriller, The Hunt for Red October.

By 1990, the year the film was released, Gorbachev had thawed the Cold War that existed between East and West. The Berlin Wall was months away from being torn down and glasnost became the word of the day for most people who knew nothing but the spectre of nuclear annihilation hanging over their heads since before born.

It was during the final years of the Cold War that an insurance salesman with a penchant for military and spy thrillers tried his hand in writing one. this first attempt became a worldwide sensation and was quickly put up in a bidding war by all the major studios. It would be Paramount Pictures who would win to adapt The Hunt for Red October for the big-screen and John McTiernan would be hired to steer the film.

While Sean Connery would ultimately be cast in the main role of Soviet submarine Marko Ramius, he wasn’t the first choice. German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer was originally cast but ended up leaving production a coupe weeks into production due to prior commitments. So, in comes Connery and the rest, as they would say, is history.

The thing about film adaptations of popular novels has been how much of the novel could the filmmakers, especially the screenwriter, be able to fit into a film that would run around 2 hours or so. Some cutting of scenes that fans loves would have to be done and depending on the scenes in the novel, a backlash could begin against the film even before filming was completed.

Fortunately, this was Hollywood in the late 1980’s and there was no such thing as the internet as we know of it today. There were no blogs dedicated to reporting on every minute detail of a film production. No amateur film newshound bringing up unsubstantiated rumors of the going’s on during a film’s production. This was still a Hollywood who controlled how news of their activities were going to be reported and what they decided to tell and show reporters.

This would be a boon for McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October since the film had some major help from not just the U.S. Navy, but from the Department of Defense in trying to make sure the film was as realistic as possible in portraying the life of American submariners, Naval personnel and how the intelligence community in the West operated. Again, this was also with the film portraying all these groups in a much more positive light in return for their assistance.

In today’s world, such a compromise from the filmmakers to gain the help from the military-intelligence apparatus would be akin to some as perpetuating warmongering and glorifying the military. I could see blogs shouting for boycotts if such a thing happened nowadays.

But returning to the film The Hunt for Red October, for a straight-by-the-numbers thriller it still brings a certain surprise and inventiveness in the action-thriller genre that other filmmakers decades later would try to emulate (Crimson Tide and the many Jack Ryan-based films). Despite a Russian accent that really was cringe-worthy even when first heard, Sean Connery made for a charismatic and sympathetic Marko Ramius whose reasoning for defecting with the titular submarine Red October went beyond just the politics of the era.

Backing him up was a strong ensemble cast with a very young Alec Baldwin in the role of Jack Ryan, James Earl Jones as his boss CIA director Adm. James Greer and Sam Neill and Scott Glenn as Cmdr. Borodin and Capt. Mancuso. The film goes in heavily into Clancy’s love for technobabble and military jargon, yet the actors involved seemed very game and convincing in acting out the dialogue that would sound ridiculous is just read without context and understanding.

While the film does sacrifice some of the more political maneuverings in the book, which meant less scenes with Richard Jordan as National Security Advisor Dr. Pelt, it does streamline the film to be more action-oriented. It was a shame they went that way in which parts of the novel to cut out since Jordan’s performance as Dr. Pelt was one of the highlights of the film, despite his limited screentime.

In terms of action, The Hunt for Red October proved once again that McTiernan knew how to handle both tension and action in equal measure. He makes the cat-and-mouse battle between the Soviet and American subs seem as thrilling as any fast-paced dogfight scenes that thrilled filmgoers when Top Gun premiered on the bigscreen.

Even the film’s orchestral score from the late and great composer Basil Poledouris would lend the film a certain level of martial prowess that Poledouris’ compositions were known for. Even after many viewings it’s still difficult not to hum the film’s Soviet national hymn-inspired theme.

While The Hunt for Red October was one of the last films of the Cold War-era that still showed the tug-of-war between the East and West, it was a fitting end to a part of Hollywood’s cinematic history that portrayed Communism, especially that of the Soviet Union, as the big go-to Enemy that made action movies of the 80’s so popular with the Reaganite crowd.

The success of this film would begin a cottage industry of sequels featuring the character of Jack Ryan who would be portrayed in subsequent films by none other than Everyman himself Harrison Ford then in a miscasting in a later sequel by Ben Affleck.

Film Review: The Mean Season (dir by Phillip Borsos)


From the very first few scenes of the 1985 film, The Mean Season, one thing is abundantly clear.  People are dying in Florida.

In itself, that’s probably not a shock.  Death is a part of life, after all.  Add to that, the majority of The Mean Season takes place in Miami, the seventh most populous area of the United States.  It makes sense that the more people you have living in one area, the more people are also going to end up dead.  That’s just the way things work.

Still, Malcolm Anderson is getting tired of all the death.  Played by a youngish and sexy Kurt Russell, Malcolm’s a journalist.  He covers the crime beat for the Miami Herald.  He spends all day reporting on death and violence and he’s finally reached the point where he’s burned out.  He and his girlfriend, a teacher named Christine (Mariel Hemingway), are even planning on moving to Colorado.  Malcolm says that he could be very happy working at a small town newspaper.  His editor (Richard Masur) doesn’t believe him and, quite frankly, neither do we.  Malcolm may say that he wants peace and quiet but it’s hard not to feel as if he’s fooling himself.

One day, Malcolm gets a phone call.  The voice on the other line (which belongs to character actor Richard Jordan) is deceptively calm.  The caller explains that he’s a fan of Malcolm’s work.  The caller also claims to be responsible for a series of murders that have recently taken place.  At first, Malcolm is skeptical.  After all, he gets calls from crazy people all the time.  That’s one reason why he wants to leave Miami, after all.  But then the caller starts to give Malcolm details about the crimes, details that haven’t been released to general public…

The killings continue and, after every murder, the caller contacts Malcolm.  Soon, Malcolm is appearing on the national news, giving carefully calculated interviews about what it’s like to be a celebrity.  Malcolm is soon on the front page of all the papers.  Malcolm’s happy.  His editor is happy.  But you know who isn’t happy?  The killer.  He didn’t go to all the trouble to kill those people just so Malcolm could get famous off of his hard work!  Soon, the killer is no longer content to just call Malcolm.  Now, he wants to meet face-to-face and maybe even get to know Christine as well…

The Mean Season is one of those movies that starts out well but then falls apart towards the end.  It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the killer eventually ends up kidnapping Christine.  You probably figured out that was going to happen as soon as I told you that Malcolm had a girlfriend.  (It doesn’t help that Christine is such an underwritten character that it feels like the only reason she was put in the film was so she could be used for one gratuitous nude scene and then get kidnapped.)   Once the killer kidnaps her, he goes from being a genuinely intriguing menace to just being a typical and overly verbose movie psycho.

That’s a shame because the first half of The Mean Season is really quite good.  The film makes excellent use of its locations, capturing the humid atmosphere of Florida in the summer.  As the killer, Richard Jordan alternates between being coldly calculating and surprisingly vulnerable without missing a beat.  (Interestingly, he appears to be personally hurt when he realizes that Malcolm doesn’t consider him to be a friend.)  Not surprisingly, Kurt Russell is likable as the conflicted Malcolm but his best moments are the ones where he suggests that Malcolm has become so addicted to fame that he’s almost hoping that the killer strikes again.  As the two homicide detectives who are assigned to keep an eye on Malcolm, both Richard Bradford and Andy Garcia are perfectly cast.  A scene where Bradford tries to comfort a child who accidentally gets in the middle of the search for the killer is the best in the film.  “We’re just looking for the bad guys,” he tell the traumatized child.  It’s small moments like this that elevates The Mean Season above the typical mid-80s serial killer film.

Seen today, The Mean Season — with its emphasis on newspapers — feels like a historical artifact.  If the film were made today, Russell would definitely work for either a 24-hour cable news channel or an online news site.  It actually would be interesting to see this story updated and retold for the age of clickbait.  Somebody needs to get on that and, while they’re at it, come up with the type of ending that an otherwise intriguing story like this deserves.

A Movie A Day #238: Lawman (1971, directed by Michael Winner)


In the 1880s, Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster) is the marshal of the town of Bannock.  After a night of drinking and carousing leads to the accidental shooting of an old man, warrants are issued for the arrest of six ranch hands.  Maddox is determined to execute the arrest warrants but the problem is that the six men live in Sabbath, another town.  They all work for a wealthy rancher (Lee J. Cobb) and the marshal of Sabbath, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), does not see the point in causing trouble when all of the men are likely to be acquitted anyway.  Maddox doesn’t care.  The law is the law and he does not intend to leave Sabbath until he has the six men.

Lawman starts out like a standard western, with a stranger riding into town, but then it quickly turns the western traditions on their head by portraying Marshal Maddox as being a rigid fanatic and the wealthy rancher as a morally conflicted man who does not want to resort to violence and who continually tries and fails to convince Maddox to leave.  In the tradition of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, there are no real heroes to be found in Lawman and, even when Maddox starts to reconsider his strict adherence to the law and refusal to compromise, it is too late to prevent the movie from ending in a bloody massacre.  Since Lawman was made in 1971, I initially assumed it was meant to be an allegory about the Vietnam War but then I saw that it was directed by Michael Winner, a director who specialized in tricking audiences into believing that his violent movie were deeper than they actually were.

Even if Lawman never reaches the heights of a revisionist western classic like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, it is still pretty good, with old pros Lancaster, Ryan, Cobb, and Albert Salmi all giving excellent performances.  The cast is full of familiar faces, with everyone from Robert Duvall to Richard Jordan to Ralph Waite to Joseph Wiseman to John Beck showing up in small roles.  In America, Winner is best remembered for his frequent collaborations with Charles Bronson.  Chuck is not in Lawman, though it seems like he should have been and Lee J. Cobb’s rancher is named Vincent Bronson.  Winner would not make his first film with Charles Bronson until a year later, when he directed him in Chato’s Land.

A Movie A Day #199: Timebomb (1991, directed by Avi Nesher)


Recall Total Recall?

If you do, Timebomb will seem very familiar.

Michael Biehn is a mild-mannered watchmaker who surprises himself when he fearlessly rushes into a burning building and saves a mother and her baby.  After he shows up on the evening news and is hailed as being a hero, he is attacked by an assassin (martial arts legend Billy Blanks) and discovers that he instinctively know how to defend himself.  When he starts having disturbing nightmares and strange flashbacks, he sees a psychiatrist (Patsy Kensit).  They discover that Biehn’s problems go back to when he was a part of a military brainwashing experiment.  The man behind the experiment (Richard Jordan) now wants Biehn dead.  Pursued by another brainwashed assassin (Tracy Scoggins), Biehn and Kensit go on the run.

Like many action movies from the early 90s, Timebomb has an extremely cool premise but lacks the budget necessary to make the most of it.  After a good start and some surreal moments (including a scene where Biehn and Kensit visit the lab where Biehn was “created”), Timebomb ends up just being another shoot ’em up.

Luckily, Timebomb has a really good cast.  Richard Jordan is an effective villain and old pro Robert Culp has a small role as one of Jordan’s collaborators.  The always underrated Michael Biehn is a great hero, precisely because he’s not some huge, indestructible guy.  He’s not Stallone or Schwarzenegger or even Jean-Claude Van Damme.  (Timebomb was originally envisioned as a Van Damme vehicle.)  In Timebomb, Michael Biehn is the everyman action hero.  Plus, any movie that features Tracy Scoggins as a gun-toting assassin is going to be worth watching.

A Movie A Day #170: Chato’s Land (1972, directed by Michael Winner)


Don’t mess with Charles Bronson.

That’s the main lesson that can be taken away from Chato’s Land.  In this western, Bronson plays Chato, an Apache who enters the wrong saloon and is forced to shoot a racist sheriff in self-defense.  Former Confederate Captain Quincey Whitemore (Jack Palance) forms a posse to track Chato down but soon discovers that his posse is not made up of the best and brightest.  Instead, most of them are sadistic racists who just want to kill Apaches.  Despite Whitemore’s efforts to stop them, the posse rapes Chato’s wife and kills his best friend.  Chato trades his white man’s clothes for a loin cloth and sets out for revenge.

Chato’s Land is historically significant because it was the first of many films that Charles Bronson made with Michael Winner.  The most famous Bronson/Winner collaboration was Death Wish, which also featured Charles Bronson as a man who seeks revenge after his wife is raped.  What is surprising about Chato’s Land is how little screen time Bronson actually has.  Most the film is spent with the posse, which is full of familiar faces (Richard Jordan, Simon Oakland, Victor French, Ralph Waite, and James Whitmore all report for duty).  It actually works to the film’s advantage, making Bronson even more intimidating than usual.  There’s never any doubt that Chato is going to kill every member of the posse but since almost every member of the posse is loathsome, that’s not a problem.

It’s possible that Chato’s Land was meant to be an allegory for the Vietnam War, which is probably giving Michael Winner too much credit.  (In an interview, the author of Death Wish, Brian Garfield, once shared an anecdote about Winner inserting a shot of three nuns into Death Wish and bragging about how the shot was meaningless but that it would fool the critics into thinking he was making a grand statement about something.)  Like most of Winner’s films, Chato’s Land is good but not great.  There are parts of the movie that drag and Jack Palance and Charles Bronson don’t get to share any big scenes together, which seems like a missed opportunity.  Bronson, who was always underrated as an actor, gives one of his better performances as Chato.  Chato does not say much but Bronson could do more with one glare than most actors could do with a monologue.  In Europe, Bronson was known as Il Brutto and Chato’s Land features him at his most brutal.