Age is a funny thing. A movie can receive dozens of accolades and audience approval in the 80's, but audiences might reject the film 20 years later. Sometimes (such as with Groundhog Day), a film can be met lukewarmly upon release, only to slowly accumulate significant popularity over time. Unfortunately, The Hunt for Red October seems to fit more with the latter, as a film that contains many of the staples of old-fashioned cinema, but without the charm one might hope for. Stick it on the shelf with Rear Window and Wizard of Oz as universally acclaimed films that have been greatly hurt by age.
This is one of those films in which the plot is expressed in the title. The Red October is a nuclear sub controlled by Soviet commander Marko Ramius. Despite its massive size, it is able to pass undetected by solar devices. The U.S. feel threatened by this submarine, but CIA analyst Jack Ryan isn't so sure that the intents by the Soviets are hostile.
The Hunt for Red October is a surprisingly tedious viewing. There are numerous things that are to blame here. The biggest issue seems to be the characters, who are generally, unengaging. Jack Ryan is your typical protagonist with a crazy theory no one will believe. Alec Baldwin's performance is solid, but he's not given much to work with. Sean Connery is the kind of actor who can elevate a weak script, and he does just that here as Marko Ramius. Even though his character is the most intricately written in the film, it isn't strong enough for us to invest in, so Connery has an especially difficult task here. Thankfully, he's ripe for the challenge. His commanding screen presence is the highlight of the film.
Executive Vasily Borodin might have been an interesting character (a loyal mate to Ramius, despite his personal doubts of Ramius' decisions), had Sam Neil's performance not insisted on spoon-feeding every emotion to the audience. Tim Curry is completely underutilized in a fairly anonymous performance as a minor side character. James Earl Jones and Joss Ackland are notable in small, supporting roles.
Some of the underwater visuals of the submarines are wonderful, and even majestic. The cinematography is unusual, but constantly interesting. And Basil Poledouris' score, while largely generic ambiance and suspense cues, is punctuated with striking choral writing. The Hunt for Red October is too well-made to dismiss entirely. But it's inability to interest outside of its technical achievements is an important issue.
I mentioned in my opening that age is partly at blame here for the weakness of the picture. The story represents a hot topic that has since cooled down. The Cold War doesn't ignite the imagination like it once did. That's not necessarily a problem with the film itself; it was made for yesterday's audiences, with no necessary intentions of functioning today. Alas, the mark of a great film is its ability to entertain as years pass. The Hunt for Red October is hardly a timeless film. Though at 135 minutes, it does possess an uncanny illusion of making time go slower. Alas, that's not quite the same thing.