The Hunt for Red October is the first Jack Ryan movie, which starred Alec Baldwin as Tom Clancy‘s famous character. Harrison Ford took over the role for two sequels, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, before it moved to Ben Affleck for The Sum of All Fears. Paramount then attempted a reboot with Chris Pineand Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit before moving the character to television with the Amazon series Jack Ryanstarring John Krasinski. This is all pretty surprising when you consider that Jack Ryan is a pretty dull, uninteresting character who consciously avoids being in the middle of the action. Only Hunt for Red October seems to really understand that because the star of the film isn’t Ryan or even Sean Connery‘s submarine captain Marko Ramius. It’s the art of submarine warfare.
For those who haven’t seen John McTiernan‘s classic thriller, which turns 30 this year and is available on 4K starting today, the plot concerns Ramius and his submarine, the Red October. The Red October has a new propulsion system that allows it to run virtually silent, which is deeply concerning for Americans since the submarine could drive right up to the US coast and fire nuclear missiles. However, Ramius’ plan isn’t to attack, but to defect, and CIA analyst Ryan has figured it out. The plot is about how everyone can try to maneuver around Cold War tensions so that Ramius can defect without setting off World War III.
On the one hand, Hunt for Red October is probably the best depiction of Ryan since it understands him in the John McClane mold of everyman who doesn’t want to be a hero. Ryan doesn’t set out to be in the middle of the action; he intends to just relay information, but his superiors put him in the fray until he decides that he must participate to save the world from a nuclear crisis. The problem with the other Jack Ryan adaptations is that they either fail to give him a proper counterbalance (Sean Miller in Patriot Games is no Marko Ramius), have him overshadowed by a more interesting, active character like John Clark, or lean away from the analyst bit to make him more generic military-style hero.
The Hunt for Red October is able to take the strain off the thin Ryan character by giving equal weight to not only Ramius, but the whole ensemble. Red October has a deep bench with Sam Neill, Scott Glenn, Courtney B. Vance, Tim Curry, Fred Thompson, and James Earl Jones all giving great supporting performances. You feel the full weight of the conflict rather than Ryan trying to carry it all on his shoulders. Furthermore, with this many players, it lends more credence to the stakes. This rich cast of characters is able to bring their own skills to the table so that while Ryan may be the guy who connects the dots, you still need Vance’s radio tech to discover the Red October or Glenn’s sure-handed captaining when torpedoes have been fired.
Of course, studio franchises being they are, Paramount was always going to seize on the Ryan character because that’s where the source material is. There’s a whole “Ryanverse” that can be mined for material, and it is still is. In addition to the Jack Ryan TV series, later this year we’ll get Michael B. Jordan in John Clark’s origin story, Without Remorse. But when you look at The Hunt for Red October, you don’t think, “Ah, I need more movies with this Ryan character.” You think, “We need more submarine movies like this that feel realistic while sacrificing none of the action-thriller plot beats of the modern blockbuster.”
Sadly, that magical formula is a lot harder to emulate, and that’s a shame. The submarine movie remains a rare beast, and to be fair, it’s tough to do it better than what McTiernan accomplished with his 1990 movie. Watching the new 4K, which looks terrific and really shows off Jan de Bont‘s impressive cinematography, you see that the director, who was coming off Predator and Die Hard, is still at the top of his game by never losing the geography of the submarine standoffs. Dennis Virkler and John Wright‘s editing deserves special attention for how they move between so many settings—US submarines, Russian submarines, command centers, etc.—while avoiding confusion. If you ever wanted to get someone into submarine movies, The Hunt for Red October is pretty strong place to start.
While the Jack Ryan character has a long and industrious career that doesn’t seem likely to end any time soon (a third season of the Amazon series is already on the way), the legacy of The Hunt for Red October shows that the film’s strongest asset isn’t the wily analyst but the specific adventure he goes on in his debut picture. Maybe if Amazon is feeling bold they’ll stick John Krasinski in a metal tube underwater and go from there.
The Hunt for Red October is now available on 4K Blu-ray.