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'Hunter Killer': A Good, Old-Fashioned Nuke Sub Thriller

Gary Oldman, 60, plays an enraged admiral in a cheesy, lively 'Crimson Tide' for our time

Rating: R

Run time: 2 hours 1 minute

Stars: Gerard Butler, Linda Cardellini, Common, Gary Oldman, Toby Stephens

Director: Donovan Marsh

The last thing that I expected to see at the movies this year was an action thriller largely set on a nuclear submarine. Isn’t this the sort of movie they don’t make anymore? The submarine picture is a very manly genre — although the last one of note, 2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker, was directed by a woman, the great Kathryn Bigelow, 66 (The Hurt LockerZero Dark Thirty) — that was made semi-obsolete by the end of the Cold War. U.S.-Soviet tensions once provided great premises for such fare, asking the question, “How can you stop World War III from happening if you’re stuck several miles beneath the ocean?” And I suppose that for younger male viewers, the superhero movie now provides the thrills that used to be packed into pictures from past decades like Run Silent, Run Deep, Ice Station Zebra, and The Hunt for Red October.

Hunter Killer, elaborately plotted and largely reliant on fair-to-middling CGI effects for its action fuel, is directed by Donovan Marsh, whose storytelling is both serviceable and refreshingly non-reliant on the chaotic cutting that distinguishes so much contemporary action fare. Its story has the U.S. facing off against Russia, despite the absence of a Cold War. Because who else besides those two nations has so many nuclear-armed submarines anyway?

The villain is a rogue Russian general who’s kidnapped his country’s president and is intent on starting the aforementioned World War III. The U.S. sub captain (Gerard Butler, 48) makes a point of letting his new crew know he’s not one of those Annapolis snobs. While investigating a downed U.S. sub near Russian waters, he’s told he has to navigate a minefield to rescue that kidnapped president.

How do you get a kidnap victim from dry land onto a sub? That’s the mission of a Navy SEAL team led by red-bearded tough guy Toby Stephens, 49. Watching from the Pentagon and arguing about strategy are an angry admiral played by Gary Oldman, 60, a level-headed captain with new ideas (rapper-turned-actor Common) and National Security Agency agent (Linda Cardellini, Mad Men, ER). The U.S. president is also played by a woman, Caroline Goodall, 48, and we spy a couple of female officers on the sub deck.

Nevertheless, this movie is inescapably Guy Stuff, and it revels in that fact. Hunter Killer, named for the type of sub on the go in this picture, barrels from one implausible suspense set piece to the next, with Butler setting his jaw firm even as his ship springs leaks, scrapes ocean bottom and catches fire. For a movie that aspires to a message of antiwar mutual cooperation — Butler’s captain enrages his crew by trusting the word and relying on the counsel of the captured captain of a sunk Russian sub — it sure does have a lot of shooting and explosions and wildly speeding torpedoes. It doesn’t aspire in least to the gravity of Red October or The Widowmaker, instead going for a discounted version of the high-tech cheesiness of, say, Crimson Tide. But if you like this sort of thing, and sometimes I do, it’s sure not boring.

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