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'Hunter Killer' review: Cliched but watchable Cold War thriller

Michael Nyqvist, left, plays a Russian submarine commander

Michael Nyqvist, left, plays a Russian submarine commander and Gerard Butler is his American counterpart in "Hunter Killer." Credit: Lionsgate Films / Jack English

PLOT Two covert American military crews must stop a potential world war.

CAST Gerard Butler, Michael Nyqvist, Common

RATED R (violence and language)


BOTTOM LINE Generic big-screen genre-fiction. Cliched but watchable.

Who would have thought, even just a few days ago, that “Hunter Killer,” a Cold War thriller about possible nuclear war between the United States and Russia, would seem anything but woefully outdated? Thanks to recent talk of ending a decades-old arms treaty between the superpowers and increasing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the premise no longer seems like yesterday’s cliche. However, this movie overall is a bit of a snooze, with more bluster and posturing than action, but the nuclear anxieties that hang over “Hunter Killer” give it at least a tingle of urgency.

The film begins in the usual way, with text and a blinking cursor. We're in the Barents Sea, where a Russian submarine and a nearby American sub both come under attack, leaving the general impression that one or both sides engaged in an act of war. Back in Washington, where people talk fast and the camera moves in circles, Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common) and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Gary Oldman) lay out the plot of the film: The legendary Captain Glass (Gerard Butler) will take a hunter-killer class sub, the USS Arkansas, to the scene of the underwater crime while, up on land, black-ops soldier Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens) will lead a crew behind enemy lines.

At this point we’re barely a half-hour into “Hunter Killer” and already the rivets are popping out. It’s clear we’ll be following two missions led by two characters who are too generic for anyone to care about: Beaman, one of those wild-eyed, I-love-this-job types, and Glass, who is as calm as his surname and about as interesting. (Butler, a physical actor, is wasted in a role that calls mostly for crossed arms and stern speeches.) It’s Beaman who uncovers a coup against Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko, playing not a Putinesque strongman but a silver-haired, Romney-like statesman). It’s Glass who convinces a wary Russian sub commander, Andropov (the late Michael Nyqvist, of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”), to help him prevent World War III.

Capably directed by Donovan Marsh but ploddingly paced (the screenplay is based on the novel “Firing Point”), “Hunter Killer” manages to create a few ripples of action. What stands out, unexpectedly, is the overarching theme of Soviet-American cooperation and mutual trust — another old trope that, all of a sudden, doesn’t seem so corny.

If “Hunter Killer” doesn’t quite float your boat, there are other submarine movies worth revisiting. These four are more hit than miss:

20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) Jules Verne’s 1870 novel pre-figured submarines with its diving ship Nautilus; Disney’s spectacular film version features James Mason as Captain Nemo.

YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968) The Beatles’ animated comedy-adventure remains a classic of the psychedelic era, even if the voices of Ringo, Paul, John and George aren’t really theirs.

DAS BOOT (1981) Wolfgang Peterson’s high-pressure drama flipped the script on the usual World War II movie, focusing on the German crew inside a U-boat.

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990) In this time capsule, CIA agent Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) plays mental chess with rogue sub pilot Marko Ramius (Sean Connery). John McTiernan, of “Die Hard,” directs.


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