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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Hunter Killer, Review: Gerard Butler throws no punches, but there’s plenty of action

Hunter Killer, Review: Gerard Butler throws no punches, but there’s plenty of action

Most films about ships and submarines have too much jargon for the viewers to swallow and assimilate, while staying focused on the plot. Though Hunter Killer falls prey to such trappings, it is to its credit that there are some interesting twists in the plot, though they aren’t entirely new to the genre. Sadly, three or four plot points cannot make the narrative sustain the two hours plus length that it charts under troubled waters. In the ultimate analysis, the sub floats just below the surface.

A Russian submarine sinks after an explosion in the Arctic. Minutes later, an American submarine, the Tampa Bay, vanishes while shadowing the Russian sub. Rear Admiral John Fisk sends another U.S. submarine, the USS Arkansas, under the command of newly-promoted and unconventional Commander Joe Glass, a Scotsman, to investigate what happened. At the same time, a Navy SEAL team under the command of Lieutenant Bill Beaman is sent to Russia via Tajikistan, to discreetly observe a Russian marine base. When they arrive at the marine base and set-up surveillance equipment, they witness Russian defence minister Dmitri Durov take Russian President Zakarin prisoner, and realise that he intends to trigger a war, beginning with hostilities against the USA.

Back in the ocean, the Arkansas discovers Tampa  Bay, but also finds the sunken Russian submarine, damaged in a manner that suggests internal sabotage rather than external attack. They are attacked by another Russian submarine that has been watching events hidden under an iceberg, but Glass is able to destroy the new sub and rescue survivors from the original wreck, including submarine captain Sergei Andropov. Andropov and Glass are on opposite sides, but can they find a common goal?

Hunter Killer is based on the 2012 novel, Firing Point, by Don Keith and George Wallace. It has been adapted into a screenplay by Arne Schmidt and Jamie Moss. Moss worked uncredited on some blockbusters and got due credit for Spectral and Ghost in the Shell. In Hidden Killer, Arne Schmidt is working on his second film, after a twenty year hiatus. As can be expected, it is difficult to show appreciation or disappointment for any individual effort when as many as four writers have worked on the film.

Like in most novels, decorum and systems are painstakingly detailed and executed. The story runs on three parallel tracks—the Russian sea-base, the American war office and the navy SEALs watching the base. Interestingly, the US President is shown as a woman, though that fact does not bring any different or deeper insight into the war analytics. The trauma that the sub’s crew goes through, including grievous physical injuries, is well delineated. Likewise, the SEALs find it no cakewalk either, and not all come back home alive.

Not the first choice as director, South African Donovan Marsh took over from Martin Campbell before the film started shooting, in 2016. Marsh’s iNumber Number premiered at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival. The film won Best Director, Best Writer and Best Editing at the South African Film Awards. In Hunter Killer, he plays safe, and the drama proceeds on almost predictable levels. It is in the American captain’s exchanges with the Russian captain that the film moves from a routine US-Russia thriller to something more substantive. Also commendable is the twist wherein the American sub is supposed to rescue and take the Russian president to safety, while facing the full might of the rogue Russian defence minister. And this objective has to be attained without firing a shot at the Russians, as that could trigger a war that neither the Russian people nor American citizens want. Both preposterous and audacious.

Mouth going askew, as it always does, Gerard Butler chooses to play a man who is in a war zone but who throws no punches. Even the one torpedo that is fired under his command would have been avoided, had he not been highly provoked. It is not the Gerard Butler we know, and while this may come as a disappointment for his action fans, it does reveal a less seen ‘acting’ persona. He’s not outstanding, but good enough to see the role through. Gary Oldman as the belligerent Admiral Charles Donnegan, who wants to treat the developments at war level, suits the role. Common, as Rear Admiral John Fisk, is the voice of reason, reasonably portrayed. Caroline Goodall as United States President Ilene Dover filsl the bill.

Alexander Diachenko as Russian President Zakarin plays it in a gutsy vein and gives it a good fight, even when he is seriously wounded. Late Michael Nyqvist as Captain Sergei Andropov, Commander of a Russian submarine, brings a kind of tempered steel edge to his character. Nyqvist was a Swedish actor who died of lung cancer in June last year. He was 56. Ilia Volok as Captain Vladimir Sutrev, on the side of the war-mongers, plays along nicely. Mikhail Gorevoy as Defence Minister Dmitri Durov tends to overact. Toby Stephens as U.S. Navy SEAL Lieutenant Bill Beaman and Zane Holtz as the injured Paul Martinelli enjoy a bonding beyond duty. Linda Cardellini as Jayne Norquist, National Security Agency senior analyst, is slick and business-like.

Most of the film is shot underwater, or at least what is supposed to be under water. Not unexpectedly, the visuals are bluish grey and often lack clarity, except where light beams are sent through the ocean to find/trace somebody or some object. The climax is the most interesting part of the film, and if you have not been lulled by the earlier footage, you might enjoy the plotting of the narrative in the finalé. Like I said, there is plenty of action. Only, it gets lost in the jargon and the length.

Rating: ** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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