Given Gerard Butler’s recent PR stunt at the Pentagon, which saw the actor fielding questions from the press in the guise of his character from Hunter Killer, and the film’s ardent adherence to naval lingo, it’s evident that director Donovan Marsh is desperate to pass off his latest as the epitome of realism. Certainly a good deal of the film’s underwater footage looks remarkably authentic, especially during a gripping, white-knuckle sequence where Butler’s all-business Captain Joe Glass surreptitiously navigates his submarine through heavily secured Russian waters. But all the hollow, one-note characters and laughably simplistic, unrecognizable geopolitics on display throughout Hunter Killer betray its roots as a second-rate airport thriller that makes The Hunt for Red October seem like nonfiction by comparison.
When Gary Oldman’s Charles Donnegan, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, drops tablets of Alka Seltzer into a glass of water and storms into a command room to determine what exactly led to a surprise attack that left both a Russian and American submarine at the bottom of the ocean, Hunter Killer cues us to expect some seriously epic drama. He’s initially met with stifling resistance by N.S.A. whiz Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini), suggesting a potentially intriguing conflict between the objectives of the military and intelligence community, but the two quickly and civilly set aside their differences. This is a Navy-approved film after all. And before long, Jayne is hacking into a camera just in time for its live feed to catch Russian soldiers, in the midst of a coup, executing Russian President Zakarin’s (Alexander Diachenko) bodyguards before taking their leader captive.
As Hunter Killer‘s narrative begins to increasingly depend on the cooperation between Russians and Americans as they combat this escalating coup, the sudden about-face becomes the film’s modus operandi. Upon Captain Androponov (Michael Nyqvist) being rescued from the Russian submarine, it takes nothing more than Glass showing the loyal Ruskie a single photograph for the man to join him in trying to save President Zakarin. Glass quips that “It’s not about your side or my side. It’s about our future.” But in Hunter Killer‘s strange alternative reality, where a benevolent Russian president battles a military coup with no apparent reason to overthrow him, it’s impossible to tell what future he or the film are even talking about.
Above ground, a team of faceless, indistinguishable Navy SEALs led by Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens) work to rescue Zakarin in a mission that would surely get Michael Bay’s rocks off. Not only do the men convince a wounded Russian bodyguard to aid them in the rescue, but they even toss the president a pistol so he, too, can later get in on the action. This would all be fitting were the film consistently engaging in the campy action of something like Air Force One. But so much of Hunter Killer is dedicated to laboriously and humorlessly depicting the challenges of commanding a submarine or mounting a successful rescue mission that these jarring disruptions of exceptionally over-the-top movie moments only further muddle the film’s failed attempts to come off as a raw and credible representation of naval operations.
Ultimately, the nonsensical cooperation between the Russians and Americans in the film does little more than advocate for ever-increasing military budgets as the muscular display of arms on both sides works to prevent a usurpation of global powers. Considering the complex circumstances surrounding any coup, one would expect the filmmakers to provide some of the characters with a sense of doubt or moral ambiguity about their ongoing missions. But aside from Glass’s executive officer (Carter MacIntyre), who questions only his superior’s willingness to trust the Russians, anyone else could have uttered Beaman’s line: “I don’t know shit about politics.” Later, when Glass is asked how he knew a late-in-the-game gamble would work, he replies, “I didn’t. I hoped.” And it’s only when you have endless military resources that you can afford these luxuries of political obliviousness and blind faith. In fact, they can often be the very things that define a modern military hero, so maybe Hunter Killer is more a film of its time that it initially seems.