Military thrillers can be hard to execute, as everything from political overtones to the right balance of action and drama can plague military projects. Yet we’ve seen films in the past couple of decades that have managed to walk the line, delivering thrilling stories about those who protect our freedoms — in fictional and non-fiction settings alike. Hunter Killer has seen those same movies, without a question. Regardless, it seems it never learned what truly makes these types of movies special, and instead overloads its running time with action set-pieces and nominal stakes.
After two submarines go missing from the Russian and United States fleets, a coup is launched by a general who wants to instigate a war between the two superpowers. The movie focuses on a tough yet inexperienced sub commander Captain Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) who realizes stopping a madman may be harder than expected. The mission is simple in its terms: Rescue the captured president of Russia and prevent World War III. However, it’s complicated in its execution.
Hunter Killer never looked amazing in its early marketing, but it still looked as if it could be a fun throwback to a military thriller from the 1990s. Even while watching the film, it felt like someone took elements of the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced films of that era, and threw them into a blender with some left over vodka and politics from 2016. Unfortunately, some vital components are missing and it forgets to be fun in the process.
Adding to Hunter Killer’s woes is the troubling scenario of it being two movies trapped into one. There are two stories at play that never really gel together: a submarine drama, led by Gerard Butler’s Commander Joe Glass; and a black ops thriller, starring Toby Stevens and his crew of ragtag soldiers in a race to save the Russian president. It’s not that those two story threads could or should never cross, it’s just that this film never really blends the two conflicts together believably.
Hunter Killer is also undeniably overstuffed with conflict and cliché. A lot of things go wrong, and a lot of tension is hinted at, but if you’ve watched any of the movies this film wants you to think it is, it just comes off as a weak imitator. Hunter Killer also has a lack of true characters, as every role is as cliched as the story beats. With a cast like Butler, Stevens, and Gary Oldman, even their default settings aren’t enough to elevate this film. Oldman in particular feels wasted; fresh off of his Academy Award win for Darkest Hour, he’s basically hired to play his famous shouty pot stirrer archetype. The lack of any time in the first act to really endear us to the characters sinks this films chances of working. The set-pieces of Crimson Tide don’t work if you don’t know the crew of the sub well enough to want them to succeed.
Perhaps the greatest failing of Hunter Killer is that, circling back to earlier criticisms, director Donovan Marsh’s execution of the film emulates quite a bit of the style of those 1990s military thrillers, and it does so to a crippling fault. Were this film a product of the same time period, and released in say 1998, this probably could have done at least a little better as a specific type of military movie. While style and execution are two important factors, it feels like a movie that should have already run 20 times a week on TNT.
Hunter Killer is just a reminder of how far we’ve come when it comes to both military movies, and the box office season. That’s not particularly a good thing, as this feels like a signpost of how things were done in the past, rather than a product of the lessons we learned when various imitators aped the style and tone this film exhibits. With a tighter script, and better character development, Hunter Killer could have easily been a delightful weekend matinee. Unfortunately, this film sinks fast and quick, never coming back to periscope level at any point.