The redundant title Hunter Killer might seem like a stutter, but it’s a perfect sign of things to come. You see, Hunter Killer thinks so little of its audience, it brings up nearly every plot point, nearly every attempt at character development or subtlety, twice. And this low opinion of its audience is just the tip of the iceberg I wish it had crashed into.
The film is a vehicle for Gerard Butler to yell a lot, or at least that’s how I picture the elevator pitch. He also gets to act with his sunglasses (a la Top Gun), and smirk, which has got to feel good. Captain Joe Glass is brought in for a wacky mission in Russian waters to find out what happened to a U.S. submarine that lost communication over there. We know from the opening scene that the sub was attacked, along with another Russian sub, by an unseen third ship. So, we get Glass and his crew in those dark, cold waters to start what they think is a reconnaissance and rescue mission.
These underwater scenes are balanced with some tension back in Washington DC about the true nature of the mission. Linda Cardellini plays an NSA representative who just keeps saying, “That’s classified.” But, as one of two women with speaking parts in the entire film, she certainly does all she can with what she’s given. Common is there too as an admiral, pulling the submarine’s puppet strings from afar, and butting heads with Gary Oldman, who has more stripes on his military jacket and deserves his respect, dammit. All of their arguing and staring at screens in the war room adds to the tension in the submarine, but is hard to take very seriously.
To add to these tensions, we have the Russian equivalent of their war room, complete with rogue war minister (Michael Gor) and ineffective president (Alexander Diachenko).
And there’s more! We also have a Special Ops team on the ground in Russia, trying their best to not get shot and to find out exactly what is causing all of this mess. The head of the this mission, played by Toby Stephens, is the only actor in Hunter Killer who seems aware of how campy and fun the film could have been. Everyone else is taking it far too seriously.
Eventually we get introduced to two more ships worth of Russian military, but by then we’re deep in the throes of an international military coup, and Glass is the only man on the planet crazy enough to save us all. This constant toggling between all the players in this game does its best to raise tension, but the absurdity in the plot itself ultimately stops Hunter Killer from ever making us break a sweat.
From what I can surmise, the greater goal that Hunter Killer is trying to accomplish is pandering to a specific subset of the audience. It’s an escapist fantasy for those left who still think the Cold War is going on. The entire plot of the film is to show how weak Russia is, and how much better both the American military and American individualism are. We don’t just beat them at their petty game, we emasculate the whole country and their leaders. Given the impressive levels of testosterone swinging around in each of the film’s settings, this emasculation is the worst possible insult we can hurl at the rival nation.
Beyond the thematic issues, and the often repeated dialogue and plot points, Hunter Killer is technically a weak film. Early on, there’s a scene with Common confronting Oldman, and the camera swirls around the pair, constantly cutting and disorienting the line of sight. This is not the work of a master craftsman. Also, using stock footage for military maneuvers is inexcusable in a film of this profile. The fact that the footage is of a different resolution looks sloppy and cheap.
Hunter Killer insults the intelligence of its audience, plays into decades-old politics, and wastes the talents of some solid actors. It’s wholly without value.