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Paramount may have worried somewhat when the Berlin Wall came down right as they were preparing their release of The Hunt for Red October. The Cold War thriller was firmly planted in the notion of the U.S. locked in a nose-to-nose diplomatic arms race. As it turned out, nobody cared or minded that the film started with a message stating that the events of the story took place some time before, before the Gorbachev glasnost thaw, in fact. After forty years being told that the Soviets were ruthless aggressors running the U.S. in a tight military competition, eager audiences made Red October a solid hit. As a charismatic Lithuanian sea captain, the gruff Sean Connery heads a cast of pros, including the up-and-coming Alex Baldwin, playing the first screen incarnation of Tom Clancy's handsome special agent Jack Ryan.
Paramount's Blu-ray is a handsome vessel for this sturdy action-suspense thriller. Director John McTiernan had just scored big with Fox's Predator and Die Hard and Red October certainly cemented his standing as a top Hollywood talent.
The Hunt for Red October is almost without equal when it comes to military action fantasies. The story is well-paced and peppered with interesting personalities, and the well-groomed Alec Baldwin makes a very favorable impression as a candidate for serious movie stardom. The hardware on view is impressive as well; Navy cooperation results in some very impressive scenes at sea with real aircraft and surface vessels. The enormous Russian submarine is represented by excellent model work, and effective if somewhat cartoonish underwater scenes.
The all-male cast presents an exciting assortment of action men, of both the gung-ho and cool customer variety. Desk man Alec Baldwin looks appropriately out of place, gasping for air on the floor of Scott Glenn's attack submarine, trying to explain his sudden arrival. Scott Glenn assays his standard hard-nosed professional, leavened with a refreshingly open mind. CIA boss James Earl Jones as a jolly spymaster and Richard Jordan as a sly negotiator represent our intelligence agencies as competent, creative and cooperative, a fantasy if I ever heard one.
Clancy's Russians are an (admittedly well-arrayed) pack of Cold War clichés. Captain Ramius is the epitome of a good Russkie: he's turning traitor to his country on moral principles. New Zealander Sam Neil is his Number 2, a charming officer who, like all good comrades, daydreams of having a pickup truck and living in Montana. Tim Curry is excellent as a dumbbell ship's doctor whose patriotism is used to provide Ramius and his mutineers with a clever cover for their defection. The essential Commie Idealogue (Peter Firth) makes an early exit, but not before he reveals his total hypocrisy. Further down the evolutionary chain, the Russian sub commander ordered to sink his mentor Ramius' ship (Stellan Skarsgard, of Mamma Mia!) is presented as the human equivalent of an attack dog, and a hissable villain. Yes, the only thing for Captain Ramius to do is to steal his own submarine and sneak it off to the Americans. If only the U.S.S.R. would be more American, we wouldn't have these problems.
This is the kind of movie that worships weapons and military might, with the proviso that "all the good stuff" should belong to the U.S. of A.. It's at least less hawkish than Clint Eastwood's Firefox; the various sailors and spies are given great characterizations, even ex- presidential candidate Fred Thompson as an Admiral. The Pentagon brass become frantic when they learn of the stealth submarine, which "can only be used as a first-strike weapon" and is therefore against the rule book -- unless we possess the secret too. Thanks to American initiative, courage and derring-do, we naturally make the doofus Commies look like ... doofus Commies. Politically, The Hunt for Red October is a feel-good pacifier for audiences who want to believe militarist fairy tales.
That said (if you're still reading), I haven't seen another Cold War movie nearly as engaging and compelling as The Hunt for Red October. Every step of the adventure is fun, and even when things become really unbelievable, we're carried along by the conviction of the actors. McTiernan and his writers manage to slip in a full menu of Clancy scenes. Suspenseful underwater maneuvers show Ramius' superior naval skill, and Jack Ryan gets his big scene going one-on-one in a shootout in the Red October's reactor room. Ramius gives him good advice, with the warning to be careful where he shoots down there -- some things would be best not hit with bullets.
Regardless of one's political viewpoint, the movie is a sure winner. McTiernan even makes scenes with men standing around listening to sonar 'signatures' exciting. Actor Courtney B. Vance is excellent in the subplot in the sonar nook, diverting us from what would seem a glaring problem with the story's entire premise. 1
Paramount's Blu-ray of The Hunt for Red October looks sharp and bright, but what really separates it from earlier videos is the stability of its colors, particularly the dark reds in the submarines. In normal NTSC it doesn't take much for a bright red to smear, bleed and generally look wretched; the Blu-ray signal gives us clean and accurate color values all across the spectrum. That and the uncompressed audio of Blu-ray makes most any movie snap in comparison to older DVDs.
This edition has only two extras, most likely ported over from earlier releases. John McTiernan offers a full commentary -- I could only listen to the beginning, so I don't know if he discusses the sonar/stealth issue. Beneath the Surface is an okay making-of piece featuring the usual actor interviews. A trailer is included as well. Full 5.1 tracks are encoded in English, French and Spanish, with accompanying subtitles (+ Portuguese).
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Okay, tell me where I'm wrong here; I haven't read The Hunt for Red October or anything special about's sonar issues, and what I learned about sonar ended after high school and Run Silent, Run Deep. The Russian Sub's caterpillar drive makes no noise, so the sub is supposed to be slient and nearly undetectable, sounding on the Navy's listening devices like a school of whales or a "seismic anomaly." That's fine and good. But I'm given to understand that sonar is an active detection system, not a passive one. A ship sends out a 'ping' which reflects off off boats and subs no matter whether they're silent or noisy. How could the Red October be a stealth boat, just because it's quiet? Tom Clancy's book must have figured out how to get around this issue.
That's why you read DVD reviews: to hear the politics of a reviewer who asks you to explain the film's science to him!
HELPFUL NOTE from John Paul Henry, 8.01.08: Glenn -- As I understand it, sonar can be either active or passive: it can search, or it can just listen. I think the passive kind is mostly what Courtney Vance is talking about in the movie (which I love, btw), and that can have quite a long range. The active kind is only useful, I assume, at closer quarters, or where you've got a direct line of sight (so to speak) to the target.
The problem with using active sonar is that it identifies your location to the other boat, and in many cases that's just what you don't want to do. It's rather like fighter planes using radar to detect their targets at a long distance. I once read a book on modern fighters, and one of the pilots interviewed said having radar was kind of like sitting in a dark room with a bunch of other guys, each of them holding a flashlight, each of them needing to find his target; but in that situation, who wants to be the first to turn on his light? If I remember the movie too, the active sonar is only used when they are already in fight situations, or when Ryan is trying to communicate with Ramius.
Great film. Oh, and I loved the article on your DVD database. (note -- up on August 10). I'm afraid my collection (though it is less than half the size of yours) is equally in crisis due to running out of space -- plus my wife, Jae Bun, really really doesn't want to devote any more wall space to discs or books -- so I have, somewhat reluctantly, opted for a steady state collection. Well, pretty much anyway. I went through about two months ago and weeded out nearly 50, but I will have to go through again sometimes soon. I'm hoping that, some weeks before I kick the bucket, about 30 years from now -- aw hell, let's say 40 and be optimistic -- I will have finally achieved the perfectly balanced and stored collection. I use alphabetical myself, but the database (homemade) is divided into genres.
Cheers; and keep those reviews coming. I think you are about the only politically informed reviewer who's non-ideological, which is, for me, a valuable and rare trait. -- Jon Paul <
HELPFUL NOTE from Avie Hern, 8.05.08: Glenn: You may wish to add this to your The Hunt for Red October review notes:
Submarines listen for the sounds of other subs via hydrophones, which are entirely passive. Astute viewers of the film may recall some of the characters' use of the word "cavitation," which refers to, literally, a cavity or hole left in the water as a large submerged object passes through it. This creates a continual and distinct sound as this cavity collapses and fills with water after the boat's passing. Standard screws or "caterpillar drive," there would still be cavitation, allowing an enemy to know of the boat's presence.
There's also the matter of the distinctive sound created by a submarines screws (propellers). For many years U.S. submarines had a tactical advantage because the Soviets didn't possess milling equipment sophisticated enough to produce screws as efficient at cutting through the water as U.S. subs. The more efficient the screw, the less sound it makes for an enemy's hydrophones to pick up. About twenty-five years ago, the U.S. government applied sanctions to Japan's Toshiba Corp. for having sold exactly that kind of milling equipment to the USSR, even though they were expressly forbidden to by U.S.-Japanese military-trade treaties. As a result, Soviet subs got a great deal quieter, and U.S. craft had that much more trouble finding them.
All good and patriotic Americans may now wish to junk their Toshiba TVs and other audio-video gear and replace them with Sonys. -- AvieBR>Return
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