“THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” (1990) Review

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“THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” (1990) Review

I will be the first to admit that I have never been an ardent reader of Tom Clancy’s novels. Many who know me would find this strange, considering my penchant for the movie adaptations of his stories. The first I ever saw was “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER”, the 1990 adaptation of Clancy’s 1984 novel of the same title.

The last remnants of the Cold War – at least the one between the United States and the Soviet Union – were being played out when “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” hit the screen. Realizing this, director John McTiernan, screenwriter Larry Ferguson (who also had a role in the film) and producer Mace Neufeld decided to treat Clancy’s story as a flashback by setting the movie in the year Clancy’s novel was published. The movie begins with the departure of the new Soviet submarine, the Red October, which possesses a new caterpillar drive that renders it silent. In command of the Red October is Captain Marko Ramius. Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, the U.S. Navy submarine called the U.S.S. Dallas has a brief encounter with the Red October before it loses contact due to the Soviet sub’s caterpillar drive. This encounter catches the attention of C.I.A. analyst Jack Ryan, who embarks upon studying the Red October’s schematics.

Unbeknownst to the C.I.A., Captain Ramius has put in motion a plan for the defection of his senior officers and himself. They also intend to commit treason by handing over the Red October to the Americans. Unfortunately, Ramius has left a letter stating his intentions to his brother-in-law, a Soviet government official. This leads the Soviet ambassador in Washington D.C. to inform the Secretary of Defense that the Red October has been lost at sea and requires the U.S. Navy’s help for a “rescue mission”. However, Ryan manages to ascertain that Ramius plans to defect. When the Soviets change tactics and claim that Captain Ramius has become a renegade with plans to fire a missile at the U.S. coast, Ryan realizes that he needs to figure out “how” Ramius plans to defect before the Soviet or U.S. Navies can sink the Red October.

I might as well put my cards on the table. After twenty-three years, “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” holds up very well as a Cold War thriller. What prevented it from becoming a dated film were the filmmakers’ decision to treat Clancy’s tale as a flashback to the last decade of the Cold War. I have never read Clancy’s novel. In fact, I have only read two of his novels – “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger”. Because of this, I could not judge the movie’s adaptation of the 1984 novel. But there is no doubt that “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” is a first-rate – probably superb thriller. Screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart made another first-rate contribution to the script by not rushing the narrative aspect of the story. The movie is not some fast-paced tale stuffed with over-the-top action. Yes, there is action in the film – mainly combat encounters, a murder, hazardous flying in a rain storm and a shoot-out inside the Red October’s engine room. And it is all exciting stuff. However, Ferguson and Stewart wisely detailed the conversations held between Ramius and his fellow defectors, Ryan’s attempts to figure out Ramius’ defection plans and his efforts to convince various high-ranking U.S. Naval officers not to accept the Soviets’ lies about the Red October’s captain.

“THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” also features some excellent performances. Sean Connery gave one of his best performances as the Red October’s enigmatic and wily captain, Markus Ramius. Alec Baldwin was equally impressive as the slightly bookish, yet very intelligent C.I.A. analyst, Jack Ryan. A part of me believes it is a pity that he never portrayed the role again. The movie also boasted fine performances from James Earl Jones as Ryan’s boss, C.I.A. Deputy Director James Greer; Scott Glenn as the intimidating captain of the U.S.S. Dallas, Bart Mancuso; Sam Neill as Ramius’ very loyal First Officer, Vasily Borodin; Fred Dalton Thompson as Rear Admiral Joshua Painter; Courtney B. Vance as the Dallas’ talented Sonar Technician, Ronald “Jonesy” Jones; Tim Curry as the Red October’s somewhat anxious Chief Medical Officer (and the only one not part of the defection) Dr. Yevgeniy Petrov; and Joss Ackland as Ambassador Andrei Lysenko. Stellan Skarsgård made a dynamic first impression for me as Viktor Tupolev, the Soviet sub commander ordered to hunt and kill Ramius. And Richard Jordan was downright entertaining as the intelligent and somewhat manipulative National Security Advisor Dr. Jeffrey Pelt. The movie also featured brief appearances from the likes of Tomas Arana, Gates McFadden (of “STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION”) and Peter Firth (of “SPOOKS”).

Before one starts believing that I view “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” as perfect, I must admit there were a few aspects of it that I found a bit troublesome for me. The movie has a running time of 134 minutes. Mind you, I do not consider this as a problem. However, the pacing seemed in danger of slowing down to a crawl two-thirds into the movie. It took the Dallas’ encounter with the Red October to put some spark back into the movie again. And could someone explain why Gates McFadden portrayed Ryan’s wife, Dr. Cathy Ryan, with a slight British accent? Especially since she was an American-born character?

Despite these minor quibbles, “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” is a first-rate spy thriller that has withstood the test of time for the past 23 years. And I believe the movie’s sterling qualities own a lot to John McTiernan’s excellent direction, a well-written script by Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart, and superb performances from a cast led by Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin.

“DIE HARD” (1988) Review

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“DIE HARD” (1988) Review

Almost twenty-six years ago, 20th Century Fox released an action-adventure film that kicked off a movie franchise that has lasted with the addition of four other films and twenty-five years. I am speaking of the 1988 movie called “DIE HARD”. And the ironic thing is that I had no intention of seeing the film when it first hit the movie theaters during that summer of ’88.

Based on Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel called “Nothing Lasts Forever” (which sounds like a title for a Bond movie), “DIE HARD” was directed by John McTiernan. Many would be surprised to know that the 1979 movie was a sequel to an earlier Thorp novel published in 1966 called “The Detective”, which was adapted into a 1968 movie that starred Frank Sinatra. Thorp had hoped a movie adaptation of the 1979 novel would also star Sinatra. But the singer-actor was not interested in a sequel to his movie. Later, the novel was being considered as a sequel to the Arnold Schwartzenegger 1985 movie, “COMMANDO”. But Schartzenegger was not interested. Oh dear. Finally, the novel became a literary source for “DIE HARD”. However, the Fox studio executives were not thrilled at the idea of Bruce Willis being cast as the movie’s lead, due to his reputation as a comedic television actor. But cast he was . . . and the rest is Hollywood history.

“DIE HARD” told the story of off-duty NYPD detective John McClane, who arrived in Los Angeles to reconciled with his estranged wife, Holly Gennero McClane. Husband and wife had clashed several months earlier when she accepted a job promotion with the Nakatomi Corporation that sent her to Los Angeles. A hired limousine driver named Argyle drives McClane to the Nakatomi Plaza building in Century City for the company’s Christmas party. While, the detective changes clothes, the party is disrupted by the arrival of terrorist Hans Gruber and his armed followers. The latter seize control of the tower and the partygoers as hostages. Only McClane, armed with a pistol, manages to evade capture. Gruber’s intentions are revealed, when he interrogates Nakatomi executive Joseph Takagi for the code to the building’s vault that holds $640 million in bearer bonds. When Takagi refuses to cooperate, Gruber executes him. McClane manages to kill one of Gruber’s men, taking the latter’s weapon and radio. He uses the radio to contact the Los Angeles Police Department during a gunfight with more of Gruber’s men on the roof. The L.A.P.D. eventually sends patrolman Sergeant Al Powell to investigate. When McClane drops one of Gruber’s dead associates on Powell’s patrol car roof, the latter finally summons the police force to respond. The incident also draws the attention of an ambitious local news reporter named Richard Thornburg, who is determined to learn McClane’s identity. Despite the arrival of Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson, numerous men that include a S.W.A.T. team, and later the F.B.I., McClane and Holly eventually realizes that matters have grown worse for both of them.

Most moviegoers and critics view “DIE HARD” as the best in the franchise. Is it the best? Hmmm . . . I really cannot say. As much as I love the movie, I certainly do not consider it perfect. The movie possesses flaws that I had not noticed during previous viewings and one particular flaw that I have noticed since I first saw it years ago. One aspect about “DIE HARD” that I found particularly annoying was the movie’s pacing. Director John McTiernan did a pretty good job with the movie’s pacing. Unfortunately, two-thirds into the movie, McTiernan began to lose steam and the pacing began to drag. Trimming the story would not have helped. I had no problem with the narrative during this film’s period. But I did have a problem with the director’s pacing. One of Roger Ebert’s complaints about “DIE HARD” was its unflattering portrayal of the Los Angeles Police Department. And if I must be brutally honest, I share his complaint. I am not a great admirer of the L.A.P.D. or any police force. But the police’s incompetency portrayed in the movie struck me as damn near unrealistic. I feel that McTiernan and screenwriters Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart went a bit to the extreme to make John McClane look good. And if I must be brutally frank, the movie does feature some rather cheesy dialogue – especially from the villains. However, my biggest complaint regarding “DIE HARD” – the one flaw I have been aware of since I first saw the film – occurred in the final action scene. Back in the 1980s, it was popular in action or thriller movies to temporarily “resurrect” a villain/villainess before killing him or her for good. This happened with Glenn Close’s character in the 1987 movie, “FATAL ATTRACTION”. This also happened to Alexander Godunov’s character in “DIE HARD”. And you know what? I hate this kind of showy action. I found it stupid and cringe-worthy when I first saw the movie. And I still find it a major blot on this otherwise first-rate movie.

Flaws or no flaws, “DIE HARD” is without a doubt, a first-rate action thriller that helped defined the genre during the 1980s. While reading the plot for Roderick Thorp’s 1978 novel, I was surprised to discover how much it resembled the 1988 film. There were some changes made in the latter. The main hero acquired a new name and shed at least two decades in age. Instead of a daughter, McClane’s wife ended up as one of the hostages. The franchise’s producers used the daughter character in the fourth film, “LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD”. The German terrorist – renamed Hans Gruber – was more interested in pulling a heist than making a political statement. The Al Powell character is at least fifteen years older. And unlike Thorp’s novel, “DIE HARD” ended on a more optimistic note for the two main characters.

Producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver were lucky to gather such a talented cast and director for this movie. Thanks to the actors and director John McTiernan, “DIE HARD” featured some excellent dramatic moments. My favorite dramatic scenes include the tense quarrel between John and Holly before Gruber’s arrival at the Christmas party, Gruber’s interrogation of Joseph Takagi for the codes to the executive vault, Holly’s tense interactions with Gruber, Takagi employee Harry Ellis’ attempt to convince McClane to surrender to Gruber, McClane’s accidental encounter with Gruber, and the many radio conversations between McClane and Powell. I found the latter especially impressive, considering that Bruce Willis and Reginald VelJohnson spent most of the movie apart.

But “DIE HARD” is, above all, an action film. And thanks to some members of the cast, a group of talented stuntmen and crew, the action sequences featured in the movie proved to be very memorable. If I had to choose those scenes that really impressed me, they would have to be the ones that featured Al Powell’s awareness of the presence of terrorists at the Nakatomi Tower thanks to some gunfire and a dead body that landed on his patrol car, the S.W.A.T. team’s failed assault on the building, and McClane’s retaliation against the terrorists’ massacre of the S.W.A.T. team (using explosives strapped to a chair). I was also impressed by the brief, yet final confrontation between the McClanes and Gruber. But for me, the most spectacular sequence turned out to be the rooftop explosion that claimed the lives of more Gruber men and two F.B.I. agents hovering above in an helicopter. Well-known cinematographer Jan de Bont and the special effects team really outdid themselves in that particular sequence.

As I had earlier pointed out, “DIE HARD” featured some outstanding performances. Bruce Willis was already a television star thanks to the 1980s series, “MOONLIGHTING”. But his superb, yet tough performance as the besieged N.Y.P.D. detective John McClane not only made him an action star, but also a bonafide movie star. I believe that Holly Gennero McClane proved to be one of Bonnie Bedelia’s best roles, thanks to her excellent performance as McClane’s passionate and no-nonsense wife. “DIE HARD” also made a star of Alan Rickman, thanks to his deliciously sardonic performance as the ruthless Hans Gruber. In fact, his Gruber happens to be one of my favorite cinematic villains of all time. Reginald VelJohnson’s career also benefited from his first-rate performance as the compassionate L.A.P.D. officer, Sergeant Al Powell.

There were other performances in “DIE HARD” that caught my attention. Ballet dancer Alexander Godunov gave a very competent performance as Gruber’s right-hand man, Hans, who wants revenge for McClane’s killing of his younger brother. Hart Bochner was very entertaining as Holly’s gauche co-worker, Harry Ellis. However, I must admit that I found the character somewhat one-dimensional. William Atherton was very memorable as the ambitious and slimy news reporter, Richard Thornburg. Clarence Gilyard revealed a talent for comic acting, in his excellent portrayal of Gruber’s sardonic and cold-blooded computer specialist, Theo. Andreas Wisniewski was excellent as Hans’ younger brother, the no-nonsense Karl. Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush (who reunited in the 1989 James Bond movie, “LICENSE TO KILL”) made a great screen team as the arrogant F.B.I. Special Agents Johnson and Johnson. De’voreaux White, someone I have not seen in years, provided his own brand of sharp humor and the movie’s best line as McClane’s limousine driver, Argyle. And finally, the late Paul Gleason proved to be very entertaining as the not-so-bright Deputy Police Chief Dwayne Robinson.

I find myself back at that moment in which I pondered over the reputation of “DIE HARD”. Do I still believe it is one of the best action movies ever made? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I have seen my share of action movies that strike me as equally good – including other films in the DIE HARD franchise. And the movie does have its share of flaws. But “DIE HARD” is also a personal favorite of mine, thanks to John McTiernan’s excellent direction, a first-rate adaptation of Roderick Thorp’s novel, superb action-sequences and outstanding performances from a stellar cast led by Bruce Willis. Over twenty-five years have passed since the movie’s initial release. And honestly . . . it has not lost one bit of its magic.

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Fox Plaza Tower in Century City, CA aka the Nakatomi Tower