The Hunt for Red October

"Hey, Ryan, be careful what you shoot at. Most things in here don't react too well to bullets." - Captain Ramius

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When the Cold War Was Hot

In the depths of the Cold War, when Reagan told us that the Soviet Union was an Evil Empire, a former insurance agent decided to sit down and write a thrilling novel about how the two nations used their technological achievements to make war on each other. In this way, Tom Clancy made the techno-thriller an unavoidable part of popular culture. Hunt For the Red October was not the first novel Clancy wrote, but it was the first he managed to sell and it became a runaway best seller, eventually leading to a series of similar novels about a CIA intelligence analyst named Jack Ryan. Though played in later films by Harrison Ford, his first appearance on the big screen was portrayed by Alec Baldwin in this adaptation of one of the best techno-thriller novels of all time.

In the US, Ryan and others in the CIA become aware that the Russians are about to launch a new nuclear ballistic missile submarine called the Red October. The captain of this submarine is a respected Soviet naval officer named Marko Ramius. But after the Red October heads out to sea, two things happen. First, it simply disappears, somehow proving unusually difficult for the US Navy to track. The second thing is a private letter from Captain Ramius to the secretary of the Soviet navy - a letter that shocks the secretary and results in a massive mobilization of the Soviet fleet.

The CIA, the navy, and the president must analyze the available data and figure out what's going on. While they have some hunches about what makes the submarine so quiet, most of the military men are stumped as to why the Soviets are chasing their own submarine. In fact, their biggest fear is that perhaps the submarine's commander has gone rogue, preparing to make an unauthorized missile launch.

In a flash of insight, having met Captain Ramius in the past and knowing his history, Ryan concludes that the Red October is actually defecting to the west. Convincing his own superiors as well as the president's chief of staff proves difficult. In order to do it, Ryan must go to sea and put in motion a plan for an American attack submarine to somehow communicate with the Russian sub.

The plot races like wildfire and the story places you in the command centers of several Russian and American ships and submarines as they play a deadly game of cat and mouse in the middle of the Atlantic. Like the book, the movie keeps you on the edge of your seat and the action builds to a frantic pace. While many such books are almost impossible to turn into a satisfying film, the creators of Hunt for the Red October do a very admirable job.

Though many fans of the Clancy books tend to compare Alec Baldwin unfavorably to Harrison Ford, the fact is Baldwin was very good in this, the first of the Clancy books to come to the screen. Baldwin captures the essence of the Ryan character, his hesitance to resort to violence, his love of the mental puzzles and analytical problems. He also is very good at communicating the necessary empathy an intelligence analyst would have to have with his potential enemies. In many ways, Baldwin is actually a better Jack Ryan than Ford could hope to be, though there is no doubt Ford is a superb action star. But the fact remains Ryan as written by Tom Clancy is a reluctant action hero, at best.

Meanwhile, Sean Connery as Marko Ramius is a delight to watch. He leads his crew with a quiet confidence though only his closest officers are in on the plot to defect. He has to ruthlessly kill the ship's political officer to bring the plot to fruition, but he does this with the calm efficiency of a man who has chosen a desperate plan and committed everything to making it work. At his side commanding the sub is Sam Neill as Vasily Borodin, his first officer. Neill turns in a very believable performance as a true friend and dutiful officer willing to risk everything to escape to freedom.

One Russian who is not in on the plot is the sub's doctor, Dr. Petrov. Tim Curry plays the doctor as a man easily shocked by the dangers and events that occur on the submarine, but never wavers in his obedience to Captain Ramius. Meanwhile, a rival and former student of Ramius is among the Russian subs hunting him down. Stellan Skarsgard checks in with a solid turn as Captain Tupolev who attempts to stop his former mentor from escaping to the west.

In Clancy's books, there is an obvious affection for the officers and men of the US military, especially the navy. In Clancy's descriptions and dialogue, Navy ships and crew always seem to have a special mixture of camaraderie and professionalism and this story is no different. Scott Glenn plays Bart Mancuso who heads the crew of the USS Dallas, a nuclear attack sub that tracks down the Red October. Mancuso and his crew are naturally exceptionally good at what they do and Ryan finds himself joining up with this crew to hatch his wild plot.

When it comes to action thrillers, a good plot and decent special effects are usually the primary ingredients. Red October had the very best of plots and the special effects, while looking a bit dated today, weren't bad for 1990. But in addition to these ingredients, Hunt for the Red October benefitted from very well drawn characters in the form of Jack Ryan and Marko Ramius. This movie managed to cast those two roles perfectly to bring the book to life.

Coolness factor: 7

Writing: 7

Acting: 7

Overall entertainment: 7