"The Hunt for Red October" has benefited from the passage of time in several aspects. The first is by what its actors have been doing since the 1990 release. It's one of many pleasures to see former presidential candidate and politican Fred Dalton Thompson as Rear Admiral Painter aboard the USS Enterprise, Daniel Davis (best known as Niles the butler on the sitcom "The Nanny") as Captain Charlie Davenport of the USS Enterprise, Stellan Skarsgard (most recently Bill Anderson in the movie musical "Mamma Mia!" and Bootstrap Bill Turner in the second and third films of the "Pirates of the Carribean" trilogy) as Captain Tupolev, commanding one of the Soviet submarines, and of course, Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan.
Yes, Alec Baldwin, who you wouldn't expect to become the reserved funnyman he is on the NBC sitcom "30 Rock," based on this performance. He, of course, was the first of three actors to play Jack Ryan, possibly novelist Tom Clancy's most popular creation.
And he, well above Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck in their respective turns, contributes to the cerebral pleasures offered by "The Hunt for Red October" that make it hard to shoehorn this movie into one genre. It is a thriller in some sequences, action in others, but it depends on personal taste, how many thrills you believe a movie should have in order to be considered a thriller, and the same sentiment when it comes to action.
However, "The Hunt for Red October" is never confused about what it should be, and that's a testament to the longevity of John McTiernan's tight, skilled direction, and the attentive screenplay by Larry Ferguson (who veered way off the cerebral path years later with McTiernan's ill-advised remake of the 1975 James Caan thriller "Rollerball") and Donald Stewart (who went on to write the Jack Ryan films starring Harrison Ford), which is well-aware that viewers are not likely to be all that familiar with what happens onboard a submarine, or tensions between countries.
Baldwin is the center of this, summoned from London by Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones), a friend who needs his insight into the intentions of Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), a Soviet submarine commander, who has taken command of the Soviets' most advanced submarine, Red October, and is headed for the United States.
The biggest advantage for Ramius and the biggest frustration for the United States government and Navy is that it has a feature referred to as the "caterpillar," which enables it to glide through the water without letting off sonar waves. To paraphrase the title of a 1958 Burt Lancaster/Clark Gable submarine drama, Red October can run silent, and run deep. That's not good for those who need to know where a submarine like this is going.
Jack, who met Ramius once at a social function and wrote a detailed paper on him, leads a high-level briefing that includes the president's national security advisor, and while the men, including the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, argue over what Ramius could possibly be planning, Ryan figures it out. Ramius wants to defect. His wife died long ago, he has no children, and what more could he give to the Soviet cause that he hasn't given already from decades of service and training of submarine officers?
There's little else of the plot that I find necessary to reveal, because "The Hunt for Red October" is one of those rare films where you can feel your mind making connections between the information given by the characters about what's happening and what could happen.
There's a terrifically-written scene between Ryan and his good friend Oliver 'Skip' Tyler (Jeffrey Jones), a submarine expert, where Oliver explains the type of silent propulsion system powering Red October, and it's amazing to think what the screenwriters must have been through in research and in writing to make that information easy to understand. Just pay close attention, take it all in, and you can understand it as does Oliver and eventually Jack.
There are the obvious contrasts to be found here, from the friction between the Soviets and the Americans, between actors and accents (Connery doesn't bother tingeing his voice with a Russian accent, nor does Stellan Skarsgard), and thoughts about what Ramius is actually up to, that causes many ships of the American navy to mobilize and monitor the other Soviet vessels that are heading for American shores.
There's also those between Ramius and Red October's medical officer (briefly but wonderfully played by Tim Curry whenever he's given the time to be onscreen) and Ramius' officers, who know what's to happen, and his crew, who are told that the submarine is headed for Havana and therefore, sunnier shores. But the most interesting is actually between two men who have basically lived in the sea, Ramius and Captain Tupolev, one of the men he trained during his long, distinguished career.
Tupolev is commanding one of the submarines dispatched to go after Ramius and is livid to find orders printed out that are seven hours old. He complains of his submarine being like "an addled schoolboy" while the other Soviet submarines and vessels are way past him. He's single-minded in his pursuit of Ramius, only considering what it would take to get to the Red October as swiftly as possible, and not the men that are with him, those who are following his orders as would be expected.
While Tim Curry's Dr. Petrov expresses concern that Ramius has both the missile keys necessary to activate any launch (the political officer of the submarine usually has the other, if not for Ramius killing the man early on in order to set his defection into motion), Tupolev is the more dangerous man. He may have learned much from Ramius about commanding a submarine, but he does not consider options as Ramius does.
Not that there are many options when one is ordered to go after a former comrade before another country comes across valuable hardware, but at least a sense of caution should go with a situation like this. Not with Tupolev, but definitely with Ramius, who pulls a neat trick towards the end of the film that causes one to think back to scenes before in order to put it all together. This film wants your time and attention and so, you'll be able to figure it out and also feel that your time has been well-spent with an impressive, smart puzzle.
Heck, just seeing Daniel Davis before he adopted that British accent for "The Nanny" is enough to rate "The Hunt for Red October" an 8 out of 10. (R. Aronsky)