The Cold War turns red hot in peerless Tom Clancy geopolitical technothriller The Hunt For Red October
Oscar and BAFTA-winning actor Sean Connery was not a great actor. No, hear me out: he wasn’t. At least, not in the way, say, Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep are great actors. Connery never possessed the ability to disappear into a role or to embody a character completely – at least not when that character didn’t happily overlap his own rugged, undeniable screen charisma like a Venn diagram which is basically a circle. He wasn’t remotely Spanish in HIGHLANDER, for example, and his King Agamemnon in TIME BANDITS was anything but Greek to me to name but two roles that, despite the lack of chameleonic performance he nevertheless made his own.
So yes, Sean Connery may not have been a great actor, but he was a fantastic and formidable movie star. Whatever he was in, he was indelibly, undeniably, irresistibly Sean Connery in it. It’s why he was such a great – arguably the greatest – Bond, because the role of James Bond, above all others, is best suited to movie stars. The better the actor, the lesser their Bond and that’s a hill I’m licensed to die on. And so the screen presence and raw magnetism of Sean Connery made him unmissable and the undeniable star attraction of the cast, which in retrospect seems unfeasibly star-name laden, of the first – and indisputably best – Tom Clancy movie adaptation: THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER.
In November 1984, even as the first tentative stirrings of the breeze which would become the winds of change began the Cold War’s long thaw to freedom, the Soviet Union launches its newest and most powerful weapon: the Red October. A nuclear-armed submarine with a revolutionary silent propulsion system, designed to evade detection it was and provide a first strike capability against which there could be no defence. There’s only one problem, the captain of the submarine, the celebrated Marko Ramius (Connery), is embarking on a rogue mission of his own – a desperate plan which will either prevent or bring about nuclear Armageddon.
Tom Clancy’s debut novel is a breathtakingly kinetic, beautifully balanced tale of realpolitik manoeuvring on a global scale underpinned by authentic emotional and personal stakes, packed with personality and intrigue, wonderful performances and a thrillingly plausible story of submarine warfare. And the beating heart of this movie is Sean Connery’s Captain Ramius. Is his Russian accent credible? Not even a little bit. Does he convince as the decorated flag officer deciding on a daring and irreversible course of action following the death of his wife and a Robert Oppenheimer-inspired epiphany? Absolutely.
It’s his grizzled, world-weariness that sells the story, counterpointed by Alec Baldwin’s bright-eyed candour as Jack Ryan, a character which had cinematic potential to become America’s answer to James Bond but never quite broke through to the pop-culture pantheon. In between these two opposite but complementary characters comes a who’s who of great character actors, infusing even the smallest parts with gravitas and power. Tim Curry, Sam Neill, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Joss Ackland, Richard Jordan, Peter Firth, Stellan Skarsgård and Jeffrey Jones all make appearances big or small but all impactful. There are even brief turns by Daniel Davis and Gates McFadden (both of whom will be familiar to fans of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION as Professor Moriarty and Doctor Beverly Crusher respectively.
The story of THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER is one of Clancy’s best – for me ranking alongside the as-yet unfilmed RED STORM RISING, with the ambiguity of Ramius’ intent sustained well by a story which keeps you guessing, first as to his motivations and then, as the situation intensifies, to how he can possibly succeed in his mission.
With all the on-screen talent at his disposal, Director John McTiernan – riding a hot streak that had already brought us PREDATOR and DIE HARD – tones down his action sensibilities while ramping up the thriller elements and, in turn, bringing mainstream appeal to the nascent technothriller genre and redefining the cultural view of American military intelligence as a global force for good, a view which would prevail to the point of parody in TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE and collapse in the wake of 9/11.
Only a movie star of the calibre of Connery could bestride THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER and its cast like a cinematic colossus. As good as the rest of the cast are, their roles are interchangeable, especially – as subsequent outings would attest to – Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan. Connery’s Ramius isn’t. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in that role. It’s the inscrutable alchemy of movies that his power takes a sterling script, a fine cast and a director at the height of his powers and makes it great. None of the Clancy thrillers which followed would ever live up to this debut, and a large part of that is down to Connery’s star power.
They don’t make thrillers like THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER anymore – or maybe they do but they just aren’t anywhere near as good.