This just in: some audience members at the film version of Tom Clancy's best-selling submarine saga The Hunt for Red October have been spotted listing in their seats, their eyes dull and glazed. The experts are confounded. The movie boasts a major star (Sean Connery), a stalwart young contender (Alec Baldwin) and the best production $50 million can buy. And John McTiernan, the anything-for-a-jolt director of Die Hard, is at the helm. So how does a book that has readers checking their pulses become a movie that has audiences checking their watches? Thereby hangs a tale.
As right-wing, redbaiting, kick-ass techno-thrillers go, you can't do better than Clancy's Hunt. Set on a 30,000-ton Soviet Typhoon submarine whose renegade captain is barreling west either to defect or to nuke the U.S. imperialists, the book is crammed with facts. The sub, called the Red October after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, carries twenty-six SS-N-20 Seahawk missiles, each with eight 500-kiloton multiple independently target-able reentry vehicles (MIRVs) -- enough to destroy 200 cities. And its silent propulsion system makes detection almost impossible.
That kind of detail caused a sensation when the book, which has sold 6 million copies, was published in 1984. "Who declassified this thing?" said the former navy secretary John Lehman. Nobody, as it turned out. Clancy, now forty-three, never served in the military; myopia washed him out of the ROTC at Maryland's Loyola College. He wrote Hunt, his first novel, to escape from selling insurance and improve life for his wife and kids. A gadget freak and an avid reader of military history, Clancy interviewed submariners and drew on public records.
President Reagan, a fan of authors who know an evil empire when they see one, called Hunt "the perfect yarn." Adding four more hot books to his résumé (Red Storm Rising, Patriot Games, The Cardinal of the Kremlin and Clear and Present Danger), each with enough flag-waving to shame George M. Cohan, Clancy became a millionaire and the confidant of grateful policy makers who allegedly slip him classified information. "They're not just novels," said Dan Quayle of Clancy's books. "They're read as the real thing." With apologies to the VP, most people read Clancy's books as potboilers. The hardware sounds authentic, but Clancy's vision of simon-pure American heroes fighting the sneaky red devils occupies the same simplistic realm as John Wayne Westerns and James Bond capers.
In the film, oddly enough, McTiernan plays against the fantasy and fun. At two hours and fifteen minutes, Hunt has a stately pace more befitting a meditative spy novel by John Le Carré than a rip-snorter by Clancy.
It helps that Sean Connery, as Marko Ramius, the gray-whiskered captain of the Red October, is in vigorous star form. At first he speaks in Russian. Nice touch, until McTiernan fades to English and Connery's Scottish burr hits the ear like a torpedo. Irish Sam Neill (A Cry in the Dark) plays Borodin, Ramius's executive officer, with a Russian accent, and British Tim Curry (Legend) plays Petrov, the sub's doctor, with a British accent. The Tower of Babel effect is maddening.
The confusion lingers. Clancy isn't much at characterization, but he's a whiz compared with screenwriters Larry Ferguson (The Presidio) and Donald Stewart (Missing). At least Clancy sketched in Ramius's motives for revenge on his motherland: His father was a murderous party tool; his wife the tragic victim of Soviet medical incompetence. For background, the film's writers have Ramius mutter, "I miss the peace of fishing." And Borodin, one of the officers Ramius selected for their shared hatred of the Soviet Union, tells Ramius he wants to defect so that he can settle in Montana and drive "a recreational vehicle." The dialogue sounds like something left over from the last Star Trek opus, and it stops the picture cold.
Baldwin, as CIA analyst Jack Ryan, has it worse. Ryan is a bookish ex-marine with a fear of flying, but Clancy emphasized his fierce independence. Married to a wealthy woman, Ryan -- in Clancy's words -- "could not be bought, bribed or bullied." Ryan is a major figure in four of Clancy's novels. But the Hunt screenplay paints him in lightweight terms as the all-purpose hero. Ryan will interrupt his talks with the CIA director, overblustered by James Earl Jones, to shop for a toy bear for his daughter. He will also have himself dropped from a chopper into freezing waters so that he can swim toward a moving submarine. The scene is visually exciting, but unless you read Clancy, you'll never guess what drives Ryan to risk his life. Baldwin, a quirky, instinctive actor, gamely fights to fill in the blanks, but the role's blandness is suffocating.
Things pick up when the Red October is overtaken by the USS Dallas -- a seaman named Jonesie, played by Courtney B. Vance, has discovered how to track the sub. Ryan and the Dallas's skipper, Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn), join Ramius on the Red October just as a Soviet sub, commanded by Tupolev (Stellan Skarsgard), a former student of Ramius's, is gaining on them. There's also a saboteur on board to ensure that the miracle sub never falls into American hands. The payoff is electrifying, but McTiernan has wired it with an unconscionably long fuse.
Though Hunt shows fitful signs of life, it lacks the human drama of Das Boot, the technical dazzle of The Abyss and the old-fashioned brio of Run Silent, Run Deep. Even more unsettling, a disclaimer at the start of the film reminds us that the story took place before Gorbachev. Fair enough. But whatever the historical perspective, we're still watching a better-dead-than-red movie in the era of glasnost and perestroika. Like Top Gun before it, Hunt is tub thumping for a strong defense capability. If the plodding exposition doesn't get you first, the propaganda will. The only sensible reaction can be summed up in one word: Mayday.