Think of every military action movie cliché you can. The maverick hero who’s just an average guy. The uptight, rule-following second-in-command who learns a good lesson. The token concerned woman who has one line. Enemies who aren’t so different after all. So many of these hackneyed stereotypes are thrown at the Gerard Butler-starring Navy thriller “Hunter Killer” that you have to wonder if this is the “Scary Movie” of submarine cinema. Directed by Donovan Marsh, with an army of action producers behind it, “Hunter Killer” is just this side of a parody. If you aren’t taking it too seriously, the film is a hoot, even if that’s not exactly what the filmmakers were going for.
Adapted by Arne L. Schmidt and Jamie Moss from the novel “Firing Point” by George Wallace and Don Keith, the plot concerns an underwater dogfight in the Barents Sea that’s keeping World War III at bay, while on the surface, a coup d'état is unfolding at the Polyarny base in Russia. When the USS Tampa Bay, the target of a Russian torpedo, goes down with 110 sailors aboard, Capt. Joe Glass (Butler) is yanked out of the Scottish highlands, where he’s bow hunting moose (naturally). He’s plopped at the helm of a “hunter killer” sub, the USS Arkansas, to figure out just what is going on in Kola Bay.
If there’s a playbook, no one’s following it. Joe Glass? Well, he’s not a regular captain; he’s a cool captain. “XO, would you rather be right or to be alive?” he asks his executive officer (Carter MacIntyre), who sputters every time Glass goes rogue, picking up a few Russian sailors from their sunken sub and piloting the Arkansas into a treacherous fjord littered with mines and sensors with the help of Russian captain Andropov (Michael Nyqvist).
In “Hunter Killer,” military loyalty takes precedent over any politicking, and Joe needs to trust in that combat-forged code. Literally everyone’s going rogue, including the Russian defense minister Durov (Michael Gor), who usurps the handsome but very dumb Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko); not to mention the U.S. Department of Defense and the NSA, headed by Rear Adm. Fisk (Common) and Jayne Nordquist (Linda Cardellini), respectively. They cook up a harebrained scheme for a special forces unit to extract President Zakarin and get him on the sub. Gary Oldman, making an appearance as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is positively apoplectic.
Despite the action-movie camp, this is one of Gerard Butler’s more sedate performances of late, and coupled with his recent Pentagon press conference, it’s clear he and the filmmakers did their due diligence when it comes to researching sub life. The script is rife with naval details, lingo and tech that serve the narrative. Sonar pings become the signature cinematic representation of the underwater threats, functioning in the same way the yellow barrels did in “Jaws,” as the proxy of whatever might be stalking the “hunter killer.”
For all the laughable clichés, Marsh and cinematographer Tom Marais did shoot the movie with verve. The camera is almost always moving, and they bring spatial awareness and geography to the cramped spaces. Below the surface, the details feel real, even if ripped from “The Hunt for Red October,” but on land, everything is shot with a soft-focus lens and enhanced with way too much CGI. “Hunter Killer” needs its radar calibrated, because while it bounces between serious and silly, it never quite finds a suitable place to dock.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News service film critic.
Rated: R, for violence and some language
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: Starts Oct. 26 in general release