Hunter Killer review: a fun 90s throwback

Can Gerard Butler keep an action film afloat when he doesn't throw a single punch?

For decades submarine movies have always proved to be a steady source of big screen entertainment, from well-known classics such as Run Silent, Run Deep and Das Boot, to David Twohy’s underappreciated horror gem, Below. The nineties though was an especially strong time for action thrillers, it saw the launch of Michael Bay’s career and arguably the best of his work with The Rock and Armageddon, Michael Keaton terrified audiences with Pacific Heights and Desperate Measures, Tom Cruise set out on his first Mission: Impossible and there was plenty of classic Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, Air Force One and two Jack Ryan movies – the list goes on.

It was two of the nineties submarine flicks though, that really moulded the genre into the slick and exciting vehicle we associate with it today – The Hunt For Red October and Crimson Tide. Both of those films centred on moral conflicts taking place beneath the surface (in both a literal and figurative sense), with high stakes de rigueur and while Hunter Killer sets a course through the same waters, it never quite manages to hit the same depths.

That said, it’s a pretension free throwback that delivers exactly what you’d expect from the trailer: undemanding fun, intermittent action and a whole lot of shouting. Chief culprit in charge of voice raising (and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) is Gary Oldman, who’s clearly decided to channel his nineties oeuvres at random intervals, suffering outbursts when the scene doesn’t seem to warrant it, like a man possessed. The assumption is that the relatively inexperienced director (Donovan Marsh) didn’t have a chance in hell of restraining him, but it does provide a lot of entertainment – intentional or not – as Sir Gary barks at people to “stop pussying around!” Don’t be misled by his top poster billing though, as his appearance is more of an extended cameo.

As a leading man, Gerard Butler’s loyalty to making solid b-grade blockbusters is commendable. Cinema would be considerably less colourful without the likes of Olympus Has Fallen and Geostorm, with Hunter Killer adding yet another rogue hero to his roster – the beautifully named Joe Glass, a man who won’t shoot a deer when he sees its family in tow, who’s worked his way up through every job on a submarine but never made commander, is firm but fair and has a moral code that demands he does what he thinks is right, no matter the cost. Sound familiar?

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Well, Joe Glass might be standard amalgamation of action movie character clichés, but Butler is great when it comes to delivering material like this, he can earnestly spout rallying speeches and do or die updates to his crew with such belief that you can’t help but be swept along on the ride with him and it’s just as well, in a role that requires zero punching – that’s right, he doesn’t punch a single living thing. It’s actually noticeable by its absence, especially when Glass’ XO (played by Carter MacIntyre) continues to challenge his increasingly questionable orders and seems destined to be on the receiving end of at least one knuckle sandwich.

Thankfully on the fighting front, Hunter Killer is covered by a black ops mission to rescue the Russian President on dry land, a scenario that affords the film many of its best scenes, while adding some much needed thrills and a quickening of pace while the sub based drama is unfolding below. The Special Forces team are led by Toby Stephens, having a ball playing a super macho southerner from Birmingham (the one in Alabama sadly, so no Brummie accent here), chewing scenery and spitting out bullets like a pro. His ragtag team are comprised of the young rookie (played with such wide eyes by Zane Holtz, that he seems certain to be the first to die), alongside the gruff and barely recognisable Michael Trucco and Ryan McPartlin (from the superb Chuck) who lends some warmth and much needed sympathy to the machismo – in fact, based on their collective work in Hunter Killer, I’d happily sign up to watch up spin-off with them all in, especially given the amount of cool ‘toys’ they have at their disposal.

As with so many films now, Killer does feel a little overlong, with a middle section that could have done with some trimming, but the pay-off comes from a finale which proves wholly satisfying as the tension gives way to torpedoes and gunfire, that result in fatalities and some quality submarine shaking. I’m fairly certain though that as explosions rock the heroic crew, Butler never falls down, which works as a nice parallel with how easily he keeps films like this upright, even when people doubt his ability.Sadly it was one of the last films for actor Michael Nyqvist (star of the Millennium trilogy, John Wick and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol to name a few), as well as legendary action producer John Thompson (The Expendables trilogy and Butler’s own Has Fallen franchise) whose legacy is so expansive it deserves looking up to really appreciate how much he’s worked on.

Hunter Killer might be an over earnest and predictable action thriller, but sometimes that exactly what you want from a night out and it makes for a refreshing sight to see a film like this shot in full colour, rather than the usual washed out hues that disguise a lack of budget. For every clichéd line of dialogue there’s a snappy one to counter it, helped by the great cast delivering them and there’s a sense of investment and enthusiasm, especially from the director, that keep the film firmly on track as entertaining fun.

Hunter Killer is in UK cinemas from Friday.


3 out of 5