The Hunt For Red October

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My dad just watched John McTiernan’s “The Hunt for Red October” for what seems like the 600th time. After all these years since it remains one of the few movies he never gets sick of watching. While I was at first annoyed with him wanting to watch it instead of something he hadn’t seen before, it didn’t take long for me to be reminded why this movie is so compulsively watchable. The cast is excellent, the direction is taut, and it is far more thrilling than the average PG-rated movie. I remember my friends not taking this movie very seriously when it came out as they were more interested in sneaking into the latest R-rated movie, but they didn’t know what they were missing.

This was the first cinematic adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel and, as a result, the first instance of him getting pissed at Hollywood for not faithfully adapting his work. I still have not read the book, so I have no idea how it differs from the movie. At this point, I’m not really sure if I care because book to film adaptations are not going to work if you’re going to be 100% faithful to the source material. Not everything transfers over to the big screen for a number of reasons, and if Clancy were still alive I’d tell him he should be happy this movie helped sell more copies of his books.

I’m not going to bore you with all the plot details. All you need to know is that it involves a new Russian submarine called the Red October which contains a propulsion system which allows it to run silently to where it cannot be detected by sonar. It is commanded by Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) who lives a lonely life now that his wife has passed away, and many soon become convinced he is out to attack the United States before the country can even realize it’s under attack. CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), however, becomes convinced Ramius is actually trying to defect and becomes obsessed with proving his theory to where he’s willing to put himself in harm’s way.

On top of this being the first Clancy novel brought to the silver screen, it also served as an introduction to the hero of many of his books, Jack Ryan. Of all the actors who have played this CIA analyst to date, Baldwin remains my favorite as he makes Ryan into an accidental action hero, not a man out to save the day. But Ryan’s brilliantly analytic mind allows himself to see and understand things others cannot due to their mistrust and their Cold War obsessions, and this makes him a necessary part of the action whether he likes it or not. Unlike all the other military generals, Ryan has met Ramius and knows how his mind works.

Sean Connery is as legendary as his character of Marko Ramius is to the Russian military in this movie, and it should go without saying he is perfectly cast here. Seeing those eyes of his on the big screen at the start gives us an idea of how human Ramius is, and Connery renders him a fascinating individual whose life cannot be boiled down to one sentence. The former James Bond actor could have given a ridiculously over the top performance, but he instead underplays his role to where we truly accept him as a submarine commander and that there is more to him than we can see at first.

Seriously, McTiernan got the perfect cast for “The Hunt for Red October.” Back in the 1990’s when this movie came out, it was hard to think of another actor other than James Earl Jones who could play Ryan’s superior Vice Admiral James Greer. Jones gives each scene he’s in an immense gravity, and he makes it look like he doesn’t even have to try. Scott Glenn is coolness personified as Captain of the U.S.S. Dallas, Bart Mancuso, and watching him keep his emotions in check throughout the is fascinating. When Mancuso does lose his cool, you want to make sure you’re not the reason why he is.

Next, you have Sam Neil who plays Vasily Borodin, Ramius’ second in command. Neil has the captain’s back when others begin to doubt him, and I love the scene where he talks to Connery about the possibility of living in Montana. Neil is sublime in this role, and his last scene is a real heartbreaker.

Then you have actors like Tim Curry, Fred Dalton Thompson, Richard Jordan, Joss Ackland, Stellan Skarsgård and Jeffrey Jones inhabiting their roles to where you feel like you’re watching actual Washington officials and military personnel instead of just a bunch of performers. It’s impossible to imagine “The Hunt for Red October” without any of these actors in it. Furthermore, they are each blessed with a number of classic one-liners provided to them by screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald B. Stewart.

One actor I want to point out in particular is Courtney Vance who plays Sonar Technician Ronald “Jonesy” Jones. His performance ended up being this movie’s most underrated as we watch him listen to the noises he heard to where you cannot doubt the conclusion he comes to. While the computer tells Jonesy he’s listening to a “magma displacement,” he knows he really heard something which has got to be man-made. Watching Vance as Jonesy is a joy because he makes this character much more than the average petty officer aboard a ship.

McTiernan’s genius in directing “The Hunt for Red October” is in keeping things down to earth and not bombastic like you would expect to see in a Michael Bay movie. Right from the start, he’s intent on bringing us into these characters’ lives to where we don’t feel like we’re watching some ordinary film. Unlike “Die Hard” which he made before this, it is not an action-packed movie until the very end, and he has us getting far more invested in what the characters are up to. As a result, it seems unlikely this movie could be made in the same way today as studio heads would most likely expect something far more formulaic.

If there are any flaws to be found in “The Hunt for Red October,” it is with some of the special effects as the torpedoes look kind of fake. While McTiernan and his crew appear to have all the other details down perfectly, this one doesn’t work the way it should. Still, that’s just a minor thing that doesn’t do much to take away from one’s pleasure in watching this submarine classic. It really is one of those movies which is impossible to get sick of watching, and it holds up more than twenty years after its release. Outside of “Das Boot,” this remains one of the greatest submarine movies ever made.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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I went into “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” with the hope it would be a true spinoff and not just a “Star Wars” sequel in disguise. This is the first in a series of “Star Wars” anthology movies which are meant to exist outside the main saga we have all grown up on. While “The Force Awakens” was heavy with nostalgia, this can’t be the case with “Rogue One.” Otherwise, what would be the point of making this one other than to make a gazillion dollars and sell a lot of toys?

Well, “Rogue One” proves to be an excellent “Star Wars” movie as it breaks new ground in the infinitely popular franchise. Set before the events of “Episode IV: A New Hope,” it follows a band of rebels as they attempt to steal the design plans for the just-completed Death Star, something which might be mistaken for a moon but is actually a space station capable of destroying planets. While we go into this movie knowing they will succeed in getting these plans to the Rebel Alliance, we have yet to see how they will pull this off and how bad the odds are, something our heroes never want to be told about.

The main character of “Rogue One” is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), and we meet her as a child when she is separated from her mother and father. Her father, research scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), is one of the main designers of the Death Star, and as we catch up with Jyn years later when this deadly space station has finally reached its final stage of completion. Along with a ragged platoon which includes intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), blind warrior and die hard believer in the Force Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), warrior and mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and a Rebel-owned Imperial enforcer droid named K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) whose sarcasm knows no bounds.

One thing which really struck me about this “Star Wars” spin-off is how many Jedis it has in its character roster, which is just one. Darth Vader shows up for a spell, but he is too enamored with the dark side to help our heroes in any way, shape or form. Essentially, this group of rebels are on their own. The force is strong with them, but they are not as desirable to the Rebel Alliance as Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia. For the Rebels, they are basically a means to an end.

I liked how “Rogue One” focused on the power struggles which take place within the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Both factions deal with inner turmoil as they do what is necessary to gain the upper hand in a galactic war bound to have many casualties. Even the Rebels come across as dubious as they are willing to sacrifice their own to achieve victory. With the Empire, the power struggle is all the more intense as Director of Advanced Weapons Research Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) looks to claim all the credit for the Death Star even as Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, brought back to life through some incredible CGI) is not about to let that happen.

The movie also deals strongly with the themes of sacrifice and courage as our main characters fight for a cause so much bigger than themselves. Seeing them do what is necessary to achieve peace in the galaxy actually hit me harder on an emotional level than I expected, and it made “Rogue One” all the more exciting and invigorating to sit through. Granted, seeing what happens to these characters might make it seem like an emotional endurance test for the youngest audience members, but many “Star Wars” fans will be quick to appreciate what Jyn Erso and company are willing to do for the sake of so many others.

Directing “Rogue One” is Gareth Edwards who previously gave us “Godzilla,” the good one, a few years back. His direction of this spin-off feels very confident as he gives fans a good dose of what they expect from a “Star Wars” movie, but he also gives it a gritty feel none of the other episodes had. There are many sweeping shots of grandeur throughout “Rogue One,” thanks to Director of Photography Greig Fraser, as we go from one planet to the next, but this feels a lot more down and dirty as these characters do not live in a world of glamour and never will.

It’s also refreshing to see a “Star Wars” movie with a female lead as comic book movies have yet to offer the same thing. Felicity Jones, so good in “The Theory of Everything,” turns in a strong performance as Jyn Erso, and she makes the character a formidable warrior even as she sneaks around dozens of stormtroopers who would be quick to take her down if they ever discover her true identity. There are also some nice supporting turns by Diego Luna whose Cassian Andor finds his conscience getting in the way of his orders, Mads Mikkelsen who plays a scientist caught between duty and family, Ben Mendelsohn whose villainous character is ever so ruthless and eager to climb up the Empire food chain of power, and Donnie Yen is especially good as a blind warrior whose faith in the force is never misplaced.

It’s also great to see Forest Whitaker on board here as Saw Gerrera, a Clone Wars veteran who raised Jyn from a girl into a fighter. I do have to say, however, that watching him breathe through his oxygen mask quickly reminded me of Dennis Hopper’s character from “Blue Velvet.” I don’t know if it was the intention of the director or screenwriters to draw inspiration from Frank Booth, but it definitely crossed my mind every time I saw Whitaker onscreen.

“Rogue One” also contains some eerily effective CGI which allowed the filmmakers to bring actors like Peter Cushing back to life in a way which feels all too real. Cushing has been dead for two decades, but here he looks like he just rose from the grave. On top of Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” which also contained a number of photorealistic characters, it makes me worry how soon actors could be replaced with CGI creations. Here’s hoping it’s not for a very, very, very long time.

“Rogue One” is by no means perfect as the movie rushes us from one planet to the next to where we have a hard time keeping up with all the places we have been to, but I admired what the filmmakers were able to accomplish. They have succeeded in giving us a fresh take on a franchise which has lived on from one decade to the next, and it bodes well for future installments like “Episode VIII” and the Han Solo movie as well. I very much enjoyed it, and I have no doubt the fans will as well as there are many easter eggs to discover. Plus, with us all living in such a volatile political climate which begs for a rebellion of some sort, this movie could not have come out at a better time. Timing is everything, and the time to rebel against our oppressors is at hand.

“Rogue One” definitely ensures that the “Star Wars” franchise will live long and prosper. Yes, that’s a saying from “Star Trek,” but it feels very appropriate to use here.

* * * ½ out of * * * *