The week before Halloween is horror-movie season. But what could be scarier than the B-list action movies of Gerard Butler, which present us with a world where the lives of millions or even billions have been put in Gerard Butler’s hands? In Hunter Killer, our scowliest movie star plays a submarine captain who is, emphatically, not one of those highfalutin, Annapolis-educated, fancy-boy submarine captains. (Is this a stereotype? Are there stereotypes about submarine captains?) No, Butler’s Joe Glass is a salt-of-the-sea type, a man who lives, breathes, and, one imagines, eats submarines. He is introduced, with extreme sincerity, bowhunting CGI deer on the snowy slopes of the Scottish Highlands, before a helicopter swoops in to take him away to the USS Tampa Bay. The top-secret mission: penetrate the frigid Russian waters of the Barents Sea, find a missing submarine, rescue the Russian president from a military coup, avert global war.
That might sound like more than enough for one dumb submarine movie, but Hunter Killer takes a belt-and-suspenders-and-more-suspenders approach to the situation. A black-ops team, led by redneck Beaman (Toby Stephens), is heading to a nearby Russian naval base. They talk tough and tease each other, but we understand that, deep down, these men are brothers. There’s also some kind of Pentagon control room, where Rear Admiral Fisk (Common) is busy getting chewed out by Admiral Donnegan (Gary Oldman), the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff. Donnegan shouts stuff like: “We are witnessing the most aggressive buildup in Russian history! It’s not a time to pussy around!” (Elsewhere is this immortal exchange: “You will be court-martialed!” “Then it’s my job to keep you alive long enough so you can testify!”) With dialogue like this, one wishes the characters would just drop trou so we could see how big their dicks and balls are and stop having to hear about it.
Then there’s the rescued Russian submarine captain (the late Michael Nyqvist), the sniveling Russian defense minister (Michael Gor) and his cronies, the phallic showdowns involving missiles and submarines, the cheap-looking special effects. Throw in a diverse range of fake Russian accents, some sub-Tom Clancy geopolitics, and one too many declarations related to men not being left behind, and what you end up with is an overlong, very silly movie that’s still sort of watchable, with Butler as its unlikely center of gravity. (The performance is one of his more restrained.) Really, it’s all about the camaraderie of real men in uniform and world peace. But the problem with this sort of Hungry-Man dinner theater is that it needs a true believer or at least a testosterone junkie behind the camera to rise above the lowest-common-denominator appeal of watching men yell at and rescue each other. Donovan Marsh is neither; his direction is perfunctory, unable to evoke even something as basic as the claustrophobia of a submarine’s interior. Perhaps he’s just following orders.