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.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #100: Pearl Harbor (dir by Michael Bay)


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“And then all this happened…”

Nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) in Pearl Harbor (2001)

The “this” that Evelyn Johnson is referring to is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  You know, the date will live in infamy.  The attack that caused the United States to enter World War II and, as a result, eventually led to collapse of the Axis Powers.  The attack that left over 2,000 men died and 1,178 wounded.  That attack.

In the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, that attack is just one of the many complications in the romance between Danny (Ben Affleck), his best friend Rafe (Josh Hartnett), and Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale).  The other complications include Danny briefly being listed as dead, Danny being dyslexic before anyone knew what dyslexia was (and yet, later, he’s still seen reading and writing letters with absolutely no trouble, almost as if the filmmakers forgot they had made such a big deal about him not being able to do so), and the fact that Rafe really, really likes Evelyn.  Of course, the main complication to their romance is that this is a Michael Bay film and he won’t stop moving the camera long enough for anyone to have a genuine emotion.

I imagine that Pearl Harbor was an attempt to duplicate the success of Titanic, by setting an extremely predictable love story against the backdrop of a real-life historical tragedy.  Say what you will about Titanic (and there are certain lines in that film that, when I rehear them today, make me cringe), Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet had genuine chemistry.  None of that chemistry is present in Pearl Harbor.  You don’t believe, for a second, that Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett are lifelong friends.  You don’t believe that Kate Beckinsale is torn between the two of them.  Instead, you just feel like you’re watching three actors who are struggling to give a performance when they’re being directed by a director who is more interested in blowing people up than in getting to know them.

Continuing the Titanic comparison, Pearl Harbor‘s script absolutely sucks.  Along with that line about “all this” happening, there’s also a scene where Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jon Voight) reacts to his cabinet’s skepticism by rising to his feet and announcing that if he, a man famously crippled by polio and confined to a wheelchair, can stand up, then America can win a war.

I’ve actually been to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.  I have gone to the USS Arizona Memorial.  I have stood and stared down at the remains of the ship resting below the surface of the ocean.  It’s an awe-inspiring and humbling site, one that leaves you very aware that over a thousand men lost their lives when the Arizona sank.

I have also seen the wall which lists the name of everyone who was killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor and until you’ve actually been there and you’ve seen it with your own eyes, you really can’t understand just how overwhelming it all is.  The picture below was taken by my sister, Erin.

Pearl Harbor 2003If you want to pay tribute to those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor, going to the Arizona Memorial is a good start.  But avoid Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor at all costs.

Scenes I Love: Gladiator


GladiatorBattle

“ROMA VICTOR!”

While Lisa Marie watches Ben-Hur on TCM I decided to revisit one of my favorite films to start of the new millenium. This was a film that helped resurrect sword and sandals epic that had burnt out during the late 60’s. From the late 50’s and throughout most of the 1960’s we had such classic epics as Spartacus, Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur. Then we have the Italian-produced peplum films which ranged from memorable to awful.

In 2000, Ridley Scott released the film that would finally win Russell Crowe an Oscar for Best Actor (one he should’ve won for The Insider in the previous year). Gladiator was a return to the old-school epic-scale filmmaking that we hadn’t seen in decades and audiences ate it all up as it won in the box-office and charmed critics.

I wasn’t sure about Gladiator leading up to it’s release, but I was always up for some hacking and slashing in my entertainment. What changed my mind from just being interested to buying fully into the film was when I first saw it and the opening scene which I dub the Battle of Germania. This opening sequence appealed to my sense of adventure as a viewer and also as a student of history (especially military history). While the scene itself wasn’t as accurate as I would’ve liked it got enough of how the Roman Legions fought as an army correct that I was able to forgive Sir Ridley for some dramatic flourishes that wasn’t historically accurate.

In this scene we see the Legions form up in square ranks with their recognizable scutum (Roman shield) into their typical shield wall formation. There are also the auxiliries acting as long-range support such as archers, catapults and ballista (though the last two were rarely, if ever used outside of sieges). Then there were the Roman cavalry led by Maximus himself (a unit seen less as an elite formation as we see later in the Medieval era). Scott was able to combine all these elements and create a scene that probably was as close as we’d get to seeing how war was waged between the Roman Empire and the so-called barbarian hordes of Germania.

I think this scene would’ve been perfect if the Roman Legion formations remained cohesive and just meat-grinded their enemy in front instead of breaking apart and turning the fight into a free-for-all. Other than that misstep this scene was what I loved about Gladiator.

Quickie Review: The Church aka La Chiesa (dir. by Michele Soavi)


The Italian horror cinema scene has always been dominated by such names as Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Their films became Italy’s contribution to horror cinema and one cannot find a fan of the genre who don’t hold these three gentlemen in high regard. Other names of the Italian horror scene were not as well-known beyond the most hardcore horror fans and some just don’t deserve to be in the same company as the previously mentioned trio. One filmmaker who should be part of their company is one Michele Soavi. He rose through the ranks as an actor at first before moving on to becoming assistant directors for mentors such as Joe D’Amato and Dario Argento. The latter would become a major influence in Soavi’s work and would help produce some of his films. One of those Argento would end up producing for Soavi is the 1989 supernatural horror film, The Church (known in Italy as La Chiesa).

The Church wasn’t one of Soavi’s best films, but it was still one of the better horror films to come out of Italy during the waning years of the 80’s when Italian horror began a slow decline. Starring a very young Asia Argento (hard to believe that a career which began with reports of nepotism would turn out to be a successful one in and out of Italy) and an Italian-American actor named Tomas Arana (people would know him best as the ambitious Quintus in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator), the film starts off with a cohort of Teutonic Knights who destroy and kill a town suspected of witchcraft. The bodies of all killed soon get dumped into a mass grave and sealed with a huge metal cross and prayers to keep the evil that was done from ever coming out.

The beginning does have a somewhat ambiguous tone to it as we the audience don’t know if the villagers were indeed evil. Soavi definitely leaves that up in the air until the final third of the film kicks in and most of the horror scenes appear to satisfy gore fans. The knights destroying the village was well-staged and executed with some cool kill-scenes and effects.

It’s the middle reel where the film slowed down to the point that could lose the more casual horror fan. We get the usual non-believer researcer (Arana) who stumbles upon the ancient cross sealing the mass grave beneath the church that had been built over it down the centuries. Even this researcher and another knows that they should leave it alone, but being the scientists one of them proceeds to unseal the find with the reasoning that pursuit of knowledge should triumph over supersitition. Thus, the church becomes the scene of demonic possessions of various individuals. First, the initial researcher who opens unseals the cross then the parents of Asia Argento’s character before moving on to churchgoers who become trapped in the church after some demonic force seals all exits.

The rest of the film once that church seals itself is one person either getting killed by those possessed by the demons escaping from the sealed grave or someone getting possessed. This third act actually has a touch of Fulci’s nightmarish-style and less of Argento’s more dream-like quality. There’s a beautiful scene of Tomas Aranas’ character made-up to be some verdigrised-bronze angel statue, wings and all, embracing a very naked young woman that looked straight out of a Luis Royo painting. Another scene where regular Soavi actor Barbara Cupisti was shown in sexual congress with a demonic being that should give more than a few people nightmares despite being framed and shot in a beautiful manner.

The final nightmare scene of beauty which pushes The Church over into Fulci territory is when a mass of naked, muddied bodies of all those possessed entwine and writhe to form the likeness of a demon’s head. This sequence alone was worth watching through the much slower middle section of this film and Soavi’s eye for staging and lighting the scene made it look like something out of the pages of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

One could say that The Church just didn’t live up to the usual quality one expected out of a Michele Soavi film after a he made the excellent giallo-slasher film Stage Fright just two years prior. This second full-lenght feature by Soavi showed him still honing his talent as a filmmaker which would finally culminate five years later in one of the best Italian horror films and one of the best films in the zombie subgenre with his Dellamorte Dellamore. Plus, even when he’s not on top of his craft like with The Church it is still worth a watch and better than the stuff released by his contemporaries like Bruno Mattei.