We've come to the point in Gerard Butler's weird career where he's completely embraced being a sort of Cannon Films throw back: this beefy lug with the sparkling blue eyes of a movie star and the burly physique of a strip club bouncer. He's never going to be a great actor, but he possesses one hell of a screen presence and can sell a distinct brand of cheesy machismo that made the baby-oiled bullshit of Golan & Globus' greatest hits (think: Norris and Van Damme) extremely watchable. The only difference is that the programmers he headlines (such as Den of Thieves or Geostorm) are being crafted by folks with slightly more ambition than Joe Zito or Albert Pyun (OK, maybe not Pyun, but you get the picture). He's a meat and potatoes genre God, solidifying a somewhat disreputable legacy one picture at a time with a smile on his face and growing legion of fans who know just as well as Gerry does that these movies aren't to be taken any more seriously than they take themselves.
The latest in Butler's growing catalogue is Hunter Killer: a bit of Tom Clancy fan fiction that exists in the same universe as Rainbow Six or Red Storm Rising (but, in actuality, is adapted from Firing Point, by journalist and submarine historian Don Keith and former Naval commander George Wallace). HK’s rogue du jour? Joe Glass – a rugged anti-Annapolis leader of sailors who's so legendary, upon learning of his assignment to the USS Arkansas, that vessel’s green crew begin whispering to each other regarding the tall tales that surround this idiosyncratic Captain. Did he really punch out a CO? Was he truly the lone survivor of an only whispered about wartime disaster? Can he do one hundred pull ups in a row? Sadly, we never get the answer to any of these mythic riddles.
Glass' arrival casts a long shadow over an already shady mission. After several American and Russian submarines run too silent, too deep along the Russian border, Glass (Butler) and his new crew must investigate. Upon arrival, they discover some wild shit: in a vulgar display of power, Russian Defense Minister Dmitri Durov (Michael Gor) has taken his President (Alexander Diachenko) hostage in a coup conspiracy to start WW III with America. With the Arkansas playing underseas Sherlock (not to mention engaging in numerous torpedo battles), US President Dover (Caroline Goodall) authorizes a SEAL Team rescue mission on Russian soil. If all the highly trained grunts fail, history will remember both teams as the men who were unable to stop millions from dying in the coming conflict. However, it's also debatable if anyone would be around to record the events of Hunter Killer for future generations, because hypothetically we'd all probably be dead from nuclear strikes.
Holocaust notwithstanding, nobody wants to be the guy who failed to prevent a third all-consuming global conflict, so the heat is on. Beyond the men manning the battle stations, a group of officers and suits back in Washington monitor the situation closely, hoping not to upgrade the DEFCON level at a moment's notice. CJCS Charles Donnegan (a harried Gary Oldman) is an absolute wreck, practically shrieking his orders at RA John Fisk (Common) at all moments. Meanwhile, NSA delegate Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini) keeps calm as she helps organize the mission with Fisk, hoping his connections with the soldiers on the ground will go a long way. Together, this collective provides a somewhat diverting bit of bureaucratic melodrama that helps Hunter Killer complete its passable dose of airport novel cinema.
Hunter Killer is South African director Donovan Marsh's leap from homeland comedy (Spud with John Cleese) and international DTV action (Avenged) to a roughly $50 million international thriller, and he does an adequate job acquitting himself at this new filmic level. The wonky green screen landscapes and underwater action sequences often make the movie feel like a Redbox Special that somehow escaped into the wild in hopes of scraping $10 million from American audiences’ wallets during its opening weekend (as Millennium Films' foreign territory presales no doubt helped the production nearly break even on star recognition alone). Once the large caliber mayhem makes its way to solid ground during the backloaded (and decidedly better) second half, Marsh and his SA director of photography Tom Marais deliver clean coverage that editor Michael J. Duthie stitches together into serviceable set pieces. In terms of action beats, Hunter Killer delivers, but just barely.
The most intriguing element of Marsh's movie is its politics. Two of the main objectives these soldiers and sailors must accomplish is reaching across the aisle (so to speak) to team up with their Russian counterparts in order to take down a madman who's hijacked democracy. The soldiers on the ground are ordered to take the Russian President to the USS Arkansas, who in turn has picked up a local co-pilot (Michael Nyqvist, in his final screen role before his June ‘17 death) to help navigate these treacherous waters. Though the movie seems to have no agenda of its own, that doesn't render the narrative beat of Russians and Americans overcoming dramatic stakes by partnering against a common enemy any less unusual in ’18; possibly reminding those in (especially American) audiences of how the two countries may have aligned to deliver an election to the United States’ current Commander In Chief.
But who really cares about any of that accidental context when you've got Gerry Butler, barking orders at his crew and acting like, no matter how many missiles are fired, everything's going to be just fine as long as his word is treated as Gospel. Glass practically seems like he was written for the Scottish actor to bring to life, as Butler injects all the cocksure swagger fans have come to know and love from the certified beefcake heartthrob. Is this Captain as memorable as Den of Thieves' Big Nick? Hell no. Joe Glass is operating more in the mode of Geostorm's Jake Lawson, only with a bit more bro-y charisma. In short, Hunter Killer is Medium Butler at best, but right now Medium Butler is still delivering some well-done ham, and you could do a lot worse in terms of a silver screen Big Mac.
Hunter Killer is in theaters now.