One-time Spartan king and opera phantom Gerard “Gerry” Butler continues his descent into B-movie mediocrity and – eventually – straight-to-VOD obscurity with Hunter Killer, a lazily scripted, short-on-logic, long-on-absurdity submarine “thriller” (mostly minus the thrills) released during the end of a month known for Halloween-themed horror. Maybe the studio behind Hunter Killer decided to risk a late October release as a bit of counter programming. Or maybe they thought Butler’s name – combined with recent Academy Award winner Gary “Paycheck” Oldman and rapper-turned-actor Common – would be enough to recoup their investment in or even make a modest profit from Hunter Killer before it inevitably sinks into the deepest of ocean depths, never to be seen or heard from again (except on late-night basic cable as a perfect antidote for lifetime members of the insomnia club).
Directed by Donovan Marsh (Avenged, Spud) with the kind of semi-competent, yawn-inducing anonymity typical of mid-budget actioners, Hunter Killer isn’t content with just a submarine story headlined by Butler as everyman commander Joe Glass, a U.S. Navy man who made his way up the ranks without the benefit of graduating from, let alone attending, Annapolis. He’s elite (because he captains a U.S. submarine), but not elite (because he didn’t rise through the ranks like the Navy’s supposed best and brightest). No, Hunter Killer splits its two-hour running time between Glass, a first-time skipper ordered into a volatile standoff with the Russians, potentially kickstarting World War III, the Pentagon where Common’s Rear Admiral John Fisk, Linda Cardinelli’s NSA agent Jayne Norquist, and Oldman’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Charles Donnegan, shout and scream about the potential end of the world (Fisk and Norquist argue for caution, Donnegan’s hawk argues for confrontation), a four-man Marine team led by Toby Stephens impressively bearded Bill Beaman sent behind enemy lines on a recon mission that turns into a search-and-rescue operation, and a Russian base where a renegade general intent on starting the next world war holds Alexander Diachenko’s Russian president, Zakarin, captive.
That four-way split leaves Butler’s character little to do but stand upright, stare fixedly at bright, glowing screens, and deliver reams of sub-related jargon half-convincingly. Arne Schmidt, Jamie Moss, and George Wallace’s script liberally borrows the captain vs. executive officer conflict from countless other, better submarine flicks. Where Glass, allied with Fisk and Norquist in outlook, if not reality (they never exchange even one line of dialogue), wants to play it cool and cautious, his sweaty, anxious XO wants to shoot torpedoes first and ask questions later. Halfway through Hunter Killer, Marsh and his screenwriting team introduce a plot turn that’s part coincidence and all contrivance. (It won’t be spoiled here, but even semi-comatose moviegoers will know it when they see it.) That plot turn dictates practically everything that follows, including a resolution that depends on the kind of trust, maybe blind, definitely naïve, that sadly no longer exists in a post-Obama world where a Putin-led Russian Federation poses a major, serious international threat to the United States.
To be fair, Hunter Killer delivers a handful of halfway decent action scenes involving Glass’ submarine facing off against a Russian sub, navigating a treacherous, underwater minefield, and a Russian destroyer primed to hunt and kill the so-called hunter killer of the title. In the meantime, Fisk and Norquist collectively fret and Donnegan pontificates while the painfully generic Marines in the B-plot do their thing to stretch out Hunter Killer’s running time. At two hours and change, Hunter Killer feels like the screenwriters took pages two, maybe three separate scripts, threw them in the air, and settled on whatever they could find within reach. Submarine lingo aside, the dialogue ranges from the barely coherent to the execrable. And while no one involved with Hunter Killer knew they weren’t setting out to make a genre classic, they still could have put a little more effort into the dialogue or attempted to give the submarine crew or the Marines a little more color or complexity. Ultimately, though, it’s clear Hunter Killer should have skipped multiplexes and gone straight to VOD, where it would have been justly forgotten by the time Monday morning rolled around.