There's an amiable smartness to the underwater thriller "The Hunt for Red October" (citywide). Its film makers know that a little technology goes a very long way, and if they hope to keep an audience's attention they'll have to do it with story, not hardware.
Writers Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart, a first-rate cast and director John McTiernan, whose signature is sleek action ("Die Hard"), have managed this nicely. You may not be limp from accumulated tension when this hunt is over, but its cautiously upbeat global message leaves a satisfying glow and it operates with a crackerjack premise.
To stay current, the pre- glasnost time-frame of Tom Clancy's bulky Cold War chiller has been underlined and the film makers have added a puckish opening disclaimer: Both the U.S. and Soviet governments deny that any of what follows ever took place. They've also tamed the novel's hyper-technicalities so that even those of us who have trouble with the working parts of a fly swatter don't feel overwhelmed.
It seems that the Russian leader of the pack, Marko Alexandrovich Ramius (Sean Connery, in a bristling gray brush-cut and beard), has run amok, while captaining the first run of the Soviets' most super-secret nuclear submarine. After taking the ominous black behemoth Red October out of its Murmansk port, equipped with something that makes it run very silent indeed, he and his 100-man crew have seemingly vanished to where no sonar can track them.
Officials of both countries are taut as banjo strings. If you believe U.S. National Security types like Richard Jordan, Connery is going to park his monster sub somewhere off Manhattan and start lobbing nuclear missiles right past Donald Trump's ear at strategic U.S. population centers.
The Soviet high command believes differently. Connery has been depressed since the death of his wife, lost in an unfortunately stillborn subplot exactly one year to the day before he left port. He's also not Russian but Lithuanian , and ethnic rumblings have been on the increase in the Soviet Union. The Kremlin suspects he's in the process of defecting, taking his unique warship with him.
So does one dogged low-level CIA analyst, Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), who has followed Connery's brilliant naval maneuvers for years. The race will be to see if Baldwin and his superior, Adm. Greer (James Earl Jones), can persuade the Joint Chiefs that Baldwin's theory is not one of a raving lunatic. And having done that, he will have to persuade the highly skeptical skipper (Scott Glenn) of the American sub Dallas tracking Connery that--should they ever locate Red October--firing when ready is not in the interest of the peace of the world.
Only the officers of Red October are in on their captain's plans, and not all of them. So Connery must fool his own enormous crew, a swift, pursuing Soviet sub and the Dallas, equipped with both super-sonar and Baldwin, second-guessing Connery's every move.
It is rather a lot to swallow, which is why one casts Connery, whose presence can persuade audiences that preposterous action is as real as potatoes. Works every time. Without even a fleshed-out story of his wife's death for motivation, looking Russian and speaking in his splendid Scots burr, Connery can still lead us anywhere and we go uncomplainingly.
Stripped-down characterizations like these need actors whose personalities carry their own wattage. Director McTiernan cast this way before in "Die Hard," with Alan Rickman's villain and Bonnie Bedelia's estranged wife.
Here he has Scott Glenn's captain, something of an enigma politically; Sam Neill as Connery's second-in-command, a Russian with a hankering for an RV in Montana when all this is behind them--oh, please!--and the splendidly ironic Joss Ackland as the Soviet ambassador in Washington who must watch that he does not step into his own traps.
For a definition of maximum effectiveness in a limited role, watch Courtney B. Vance's sonar operator, who must persuade everyone of what he alone has heard--fleetingly. And as Connery's underwater connection, a man whose peaceable intentions are a match for Connery's, Baldwin's amiable Ryan seems to thrive under pressure, maturing as the action progresses.
The production is as clean and effective as Red October herself; there's not one dial or glowing radar screen too many; the underwater hits and near-misses are clearly choreographed and the undersea intensity is captured perfectly by Jan De Bont's camera work.