The Hunt for Red October


The Hunt for Red October

Sean Connery lights up the screen.

(1990) Thriller (Paramount) Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Sam Neill, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Joss Ackland, Richard Jordan, Peter Firth, Tim Curry, Courtney B. Vance, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeffrey Jones, Fred Dalton Thompson, Tomas Arana, Gates McFadden. Directed by John McTiernan

 

There are weapons of war – planes, ships, tanks, subs – that we all know about and each side keeps tabs on and has whatever countermeasures that are available to combat them. All sides have them and it keeps things honest. What if there was a weapon of war that only one side had, one which avoided the whole Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine and gave one side a critical advantage, one which in order to have would have to be used without the knowledge of the other side?

In this classic Naval thriller set during the Cold War the Soviets have done just that. The Red October is a submarine with a propulsion system that allows it to run virtually undetected by sonar (who might mistake it for whales). This is bad news for the Americans who would never know if the sub parked itself off the Atlantic seaboard and start lobbing nukes into New York City, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia…hell all over the northeast with virtually no warning.

Captain Marko Ramius (Connery) realizes that this is the only use a sub such as this would have; the Red October has nearly zero maneuvering skills and  isn’t particularly fast. He knows that the vessel he has been tasked with taking on a trial run could mean the end of everything. Therefore he enters into a pact with his senior officers, including his second-in-command Borodin (Neill) to do the unthinkable.

In the meantime the CIA is frantic. They’ve monitored a new sub leaving the shipyards and then disappearing as monitored by the USS Dallas’ crack sonar operator Jones (Vance). His captain, Bart Mancuso (Glenn) is mystified. So is the CIA. Admiral Greer (J.E. Jones) has never heard of this kind of vessel. His expert in Soviet subs is Jack Ryan (Baldwin), an analyst who is currently living in London. They put him on the first flight to DC where he is shown some pictures of a sub with an odd pair of openings in stern. Ryan takes the pictures to a sub builder (Jeff Jones) who realizes what it could mean.

Soon it becomes apparent that something extraordinary is going on. The entire Soviet fleet is scrambled, apparently searching for something. Ryan reports his findings to the President’s defense counsel, including his most senior advisor Jeffrey Pelt (Jordan). While the military men think that this signals that an attack on the U.S. is imminent, Ryan – who wrote the C.I.A.’s analysis on Ramius suddenly realizes that Ramius might be intending to defect.

Nobody really thinks Ryan is for real but Pelt wants to hedge his bets; if he can get his hands on a piece of Soviet hardware this advanced, the opportunity has to be at least explored. He sends Ryan – who is not a field agent – to the Dallas (which is by no means an easy feat) to intercept the Red October and determine his intentions – while trying to keep out of the way of the entire Soviet and U.S. Fleet which are trying to sink her.

Jack Ryan is the creation of former insurance agent and now bestselling author Tom Clancy who has made his career out of these political thrillers with military overtones. Clancy knows his military hardware and while even at this date nothing like the Red October exists (at least to the knowledge of the general public), it certainly is within the realm of possibility.  This was the first Jack Ryan novel to make it to the screen and its success both critically and commercially paved the way for three other movies to make the transition (with a fourth scheduled for Christmas 2013).

A large reason for this is Connery. He brings dignity and gravitas to the part of Ramius. Though this is a Jack Ryan film it is Ramius you will remember and it is in many ways his show. The relationship between Ramius and Borodin is crucial in the film and Connery has some pretty believable chemistry with Neill.

The sub chase sequences are as good as any you’re likely to see with the possible exception of Das Boot. I also found the political intrigue that goes on during the movie to be second to none; you get the sense that everyone is playing a game that is unique to themselves, from the ship commanders on up to the President himself. That may well be how it is in real life.

There are some who have criticized Baldwin’s low-key performance as Ryan; certainly I think Harrison Ford nailed the part better in later versions of Jack, but I don’t think Baldwin is that bad. He plays it more intellectual and less action than Ford but that’s all right – his performance is well-suited for the film, which really makes most of its action bones with the sub duels rather than individuals. In that sense it’s the captains of the various vessels involved who make the action heroes here.

There is definitely an 80s film sensibility here (it was shot in 1989) although it would open the door for the 90s political film ethos. In a very real way this is one of the movies that transitioned the 1980s action film into the 1990s special effects film. As such it’s a classic and to my mind one of a kind. I do not necessarily agree with Clancy’s political beliefs, but the man can write an excellent story and he has done so here; I’m not entirely sure if he likes the movie that came of his imagination but I know that I do.

WHY RENT THIS: Quite realistic. Details are superb. Connery, Baldwin, Jones and Glenn are amazing. Great sets and breathtaking story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Something of a throwback to cold war attitudes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some violence, a few adult themes and a bit of swearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the film was released on VHS, the tape was colored red.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $200.5M on a $30M production budget; this was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Das Boot

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Uncertainty

Burke and Hare


Burke and Hare

Andy Serkis and Simon Pegg find out it’s tuna casserole for lunch again.

(2010) Horror Comedy (IFC) Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, Christopher Lee, Ronnie Corbett, Hugh Bonneville, Jenny Agutter, Bill Bailey, Jessica Hynes, Stuart McQuarrie, Michael Smiley, David Hayman. Directed by John Landis

 

New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger characterized this movie, loosely based on real life murders committed in Edinburgh in the 19th century, as an American director using English actors to portray Irish immigrants committing murders in Scotland (I’m paraphrasing here) which, as Genzlinger opines, leads to a bit of schizophrenia of tone.

William Burke (Pegg) and his associate William Hare (Serkis) are having a spectacular run of bad luck. Times are hard in 19th century Edinburgh; while the best medical universities in the world are here, most of the city is stuck in squalor as the citizens of Edinburgh try to meet ends meet, most with the same lack of success that Burke and Hare are experiencing.

At the same time there is a rivalry going on in the medical schools. Doctors Robert Knox (Wilkinson) and Alexander Monro (Curry) have been going at it tooth and nail as they use cadavers to teach students the wonders of the human body. However, cadavers aren’t easy to come by and Knox is paying top dollar for fresh corpses and thus Burke and Hare discover a wonderful business opportunity for themselves.

At first they pretty much stick to grave robbing but the problem is that people aren’t dying fast enough to keep Knox properly supplied, so Burke and Hare, being entrepreneurial sorts, decide to help them out a bit. Soon the money is rolling in and Hare’s wife Lucky (Hynes), a sensible sort, helps her husband and his partner out with the business. Burke, in the meantime, has become smitten by actress – or prostitute, which Hare points out isn’t much of a distinction at the time – Ginny Hawkins (Fisher) who yearns to put on an all woman version of Macbeth and Burke is determined to finance the show in order to win the heart of his new beloved.

Still, murdering people for their cadavers is sort of frowned upon and the law is soon on their tails. You can imagine what happened next – or you can look it up in Wikipedia. The movie is kind of close to what actually occurred in the end.

This is the product of Ealing Studios which produced some of the most well-known comedies in the history of British films between 1947 and 1957 (including Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob). This isn’t, strictly speaking, a comedy although it is funny in places (although the movie relies on slapstick a good deal for its humor which is fairly lowbrow for Ealing). It isn’t, strictly speaking, a horror film either although there are some grisly images. Hammer Films has nothing to worry about in other words.

Landis who in his prime directed some classic films like An American Werewolf in London, The Blues Brothers and National Lampoon’s Animal House hasn’t directed a feature since 1998. This isn’t by any means going to be remembered as one of his better efforts but it actually isn’t one of his worst either.

Casting Pegg and Serkis (although at one time Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell were rumored to have been cast in their roles) is a good reason why. The two are perfect for the parts. Their byplay is natural and unforced. It’s what you might expect from a couple of men who have been friends and partners for years; they’re almost like an old married couple in places.

It helps that each of them has a romantic foil that keeps up with them. Fisher, a beautiful woman who has some pretty impressive acting chops, takes a quirky role and makes it believable. Too often these kinds of parts are written to be eccentric for their own sake and I think that to a certain extent that’s the case here (just ask yourself – does having Burke fall for an actress with Ginny’s aspirations add anything to the story that wouldn’t have been there if she was “normal”?) and only Fisher’s performance keeps it from being irritating. Hynes, whose work I hadn’t been familiar with, also does some impressive work here.

There are some mystifying changes to the historical facts which I understand often has to be done for dramatic purposes. However, Burke and Hare were notorious for smothering their victims, which was their preferred modus operandi. I don’t understand why that was glossed over other than to create slapstick opportunities having to do with the murders themselves. Ah well.

I do like the tone of the movie which isn’t overly serious despite its somewhat grisly subject matter. This isn’t a movie people are going to be rushing right out to rent but by the same token it isn’t one that should be ignored either. I would have liked a little more consistency and a few more laughs. However, this is worth a look if you’re out to check something you haven’t seen before.

WHY RENT THIS: Pegg and Serkis are fun to watch. Fisher is gorgeous and there’s a certain sly wink about the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks consistency. Plays fast and loose with the real story of the murders, some of which seems unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of disturbing images as you might imagine. There’s also a little bit of sex and a smattering of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actors David Schofield, John Woodvine and Agutter all appeared in An American Werewolf in London which was directed by Landis back in 1981.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.4M on an unreported production budget; sounds like it made a tidy profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Sell the Dead

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Out of Africa

Top 5 Starfests


One of the big draws of The Expendables (see review) is the star power; many of the biggest stars in the action genre of the last 20 years make an appearance in the movie. Loading up a movie with as many stars as you can fit in is nearly as old as Hollywood is itself; having multiple stars draws across various fanbases and give the movie a wider potential audience to draw from. Some movies exist for little reason beyond just getting those self-same stars into the same movie; how many people would have seen Heat for example had it not had both Pacino and De Niro in it? At their best, Starfests can be a romp allowing big stars to shine in small little-more-than-cameo roles. These are my favorites.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are several movies that didn’t make the top five but were worthy of mentioning here. Robin and the Seven Hoods (1962) was ostensibly a Rat Pack movie with Sinatra, Deano and Sammy, it also boasted Bing Crosby, Peter Falk, Barbara Rush, Victor Buono, Tony Randall and Edward G. Robinson, along with a number of Borscht Belt comics of the day. The Towering Inferno (1974) followed the tried and true disaster film formula of throwing a bunch of stars into a disaster situation and then have the audience watch to see who survives. Not only did it pair up Steve McQueen and Paul Newman for the first time, the stellar cast included William Holden, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Robert Vaughn and OJ. Yes, that OJ. Clue (1985) was based on the popular board game and had the gimmick of shooting three different endings which varied depending on which theater you saw the movie in. The cast of characters included Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and Lesley Ann Warren. Finally, Mars Attacks! (1996) was director Tim Burton’s homage to a series of collectable cards issued in the 1950s that depicted all sorts of gruesome killings perpetrated by rampaging Martians. Here, he set up a spectacular cast only to kill them off in some horrible way, including Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Danny De Vito, Annette Bening, Rod Steiger, Jim Brown, Glenn Close, Sylvia Sidney, Pam Grier, Joe Don Baker, Paul Winfield and Martin Short. Also cast in early roles were Jack Black and Natalie Portman before they were famous. 

5. THE GREAT RACE (1965)

 The Great Race

This Blake Edwards-directed ode to the daredevil motorists of the early1900s relied heavily on silent cinema conventions and star power to motor it along. The race from New York to Paris featured Jack Lemmon as the Dastardly Professor Fate, whose car contained among other inventions, a smoke machine, a cannon and a scissor lift. Tony Randall  Curtis was the Great Leslie, whose eyes and teeth twinkled and gleamed like the Northern Star, sure to set all sorts of female hearts a-flutter at the time. Along for the ride was an impressive cast including Natalie Wood, Dorothy Provine, Ross Martin, Keenan Wynn, Peter Falk, Arthur O’Connell, Larry Storch, Vivian Vance and Denver Pyle. It can be seen regularly on broadcast television and is usually not that hard to find at your local video retailer.

4. THE LONGEST DAY (1962)

 The Longest Day

The story of D-Day is an epic canvas in and of itself, and Hollywood just about outdid itself when it rolled out the red carpet for the stars who played both front line soldiers and officers behind the scenes where the invasion of Normandy was planned. John Wayne headlined the she-bang, but among those who were also involved including (deep breath now) Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Robert Mitchum, Roddy McDowell, Curt Jurgens, Robert Ryan, George Segal, Edmund O’Brien, Sal Mineo, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Robert Wagner, Stuart Whitman, Rod Steiger, Eddie Albert and Gert Frobe. It may not have been the longest day but it might have been the longest cast. It periodically shows up on broadcast television or basic cable; it can be difficult to find at video retailers, but as a classic is most certainly worth seeking out.

3. OCEANS 11 (2001)

Oceans Eleven 

George Clooney got together with his buddy Steven Soderbergh and decided to remake the Rat Pack classic of the same name, albeit much modernized but with the same jazzy sense of style. The two of them called a bunch of A-list friends to make a new Rat Pack for the 21st century and an impressive list of talent it is; Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia, Scott Caan and Casey Affleck. You got the feeling that robbing the casino was not so much the point as was having a three-month long party in Vegas. Fortunately, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas – it was a smash hit and inspired two sequels and there might have been more but for the untimely passing of Bernie Mac. Currently, it plays cable TV regularly and occasionally shows up on TBS and it’s ilk. If you don’t want to wait for it to show up on TV, you can easily find it at most rental outlets or retail stores if you want to add it to your own library.

2. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express

A classic Agatha Christie mystery became a box office smash and Oscar winner in the capable hands of director Sidney Lumet. Albert Finney starred as the natty Belgian detective Hercule Poirot faced with a vicious murder on a train that as he investigates, he determines it has something to do with an infamous kidnapping that was obviously based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. In this gorgeous period piece, everyone’s a suspect and when you have a cast like Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark, Ingmar Bergman, Sean Connery, Michael York, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Wendy Hiller, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts and Jean-Pierre Cassel, it doesn’t really matter who done it. This is one train ride I don’t mind taking over and over again and you certainly can; it makes regular appearances both on premium cable and basic cable. It is also fairly easy to find at video rental places, although generally you’re much more apt to be able to buy it online than you are in brick and mortar retailers.

1. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days

Producer Michael Todd’s epic version of the Jules Verne novel was beyond scale or scope. One of the most honored films of all time with five Oscars (including Best Picture), the movie starred the urbane David Niven as Phineas Fogg, with the Mexican comedian Cantinflas as the loyal manservant Passepartout, the cast included most of the biggest stars of the day, with Shirley MacLaine as the lovely Princess Aouda, but also in varying roles from cameos to featured roles, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Cedric Hardwicke, Ronald Coleman, Robert Newton, Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Hermione Gingold, Edward R. Murrow and Trevor Howard. This remains one of the most entertaining movies ever made. It used to be a broadcast staple, but rarely shows up on cable these days; you’re probably better off renting it or buying it from your favorite retailer.