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‘Hunter Killer’ a suboptimal submarine movie

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As the end of the year approaches, moviegoers can look forward to a deluge of quality films gracing screens as studios jockey for position in the coming awards season. There are a spate of great films looming just over the horizon.

But as the new submarine action thriller “Hunter Killer” aptly illustrates – we’re not quite there yet.

This latest installment in Gerard Butler’s quest to make weirdly bad versions of 1990s action movies is somehow one of the actor’s more nonsensical despite previous outings that include him fighting the weather (“Geostorm”) or Egyptian gods (“Gods of Egypt”) or protecting the President from places that have fallen (“Olympus Has Fallen”; “London Had Fallen”).

It has the combination of narrative thinness, disinterested performance and perfunctory effects work that often leads to an entertaining moviegoing experience. Alas, it’s not even bad enough to be really enjoyable, instead settling into a too-long slog where not much happens and what DOES happen isn’t particularly interesting.

An incident in Russian waters leads to the disappearance of an American submarine. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”) orders a retaliation to perceived aggression, but Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common, “The Hate U Give”) – thanks in part to intelligence provided by NSA agent Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini, “A Simple Favor”) - thinks there’s more to the story and believes a rescue mission is in order.

Fisk sends the USS Arkansas, a submarine whose designation is the titular “Hunter Killer,” assigning as captain an unorthodox, rise-through-the-ranks officer Joe Glass (Butler). Captain Glass quickly takes command of his crew of generally competent (and utterly interchangeable) sailors. The sub makes its way to Russian waters a lot faster than would seem possible; Glass and company quickly realize there’s more to this situation than meets the eye.

In fact, it turns out that war looms on the horizon, thanks to the sinister scheming of Russian defense minister Durov (Michael Gor, “The Hitman’s Bodyguard”), who has taken Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko, “Pervye”) hostage and assumed de facto control of the country’s military.

Oh, and while all this is happening, we’re ALSO following an additional storyline about a team of four Navy SEALs – led by Lieutenant Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens, TV’s “Lost in Space”), not that you’ll ever really care – enlisted to make their way to the Russian naval base where all of this is taking place. Eventually, they’re asked to rescue the Russian president … and Glass and his team are tasked with sneaking through enemy lines and picking them up.

You’ll never guess what happens next.

“Hunter Killer” is a bad movie, but not in any particularly interesting ways. It’s bad AND boring, which is never a good thing. It would be one thing if it was trying to be something, but it never even musters up enough ambition or effort to amount to much of anything at all. It lacks the one thing you need from your standard Gerard Butler Dumb Premise Action Movie (GBDPAM) – fun. There’s nothing FUN about “Hunter Killer” – for much of the inflated 121-minute runtime, it’s ploddingly humorless.

Director Donovan Marsh is a weird choice for a movie like this one – and it shows. There are strange cuts and flat scenes all entangled with unconvincing CGI submarines doing submarine stuff. As for the narrative, well … the Navy SEAL thing (which takes up a significant percentage of runtime) feels like it came from a completely different movie. And all that leaves aside the utter nonsense of the main plot. The plot holes have plot holes and no one seems all that concerned about it.

The cast should have saved this movie. At the helm – literally, in this case – you’ve got Gerard Butler doing what he’s apparently decided he’s going to do in every movie he does from here on in. He does the “rough-edged amazing genius, only if mayonnaise was a person” – an ideal fit for the sort of throwback knockoffs he apparently loves to make. He grimaces and grunts and has not just one but TWO inspirational captain speeches over the submarine intercom. He Gerard Butlers HARD.

This is precisely the sort of weirdly-assembled-but-really-talented supporting ensemble that every good GBDPAM needs. I legitimately love this cast and would give anything to have been in the room for the table read. There’s real joy in the idea of Common and Gary Oldman performing a scene together; they’re both good, although neither one really resonates – Common because he’s still trying to get there as an actor and Oldman because he could not care less about any of this. He’s just counting zeroes. Cardellini is here for reasons I wouldn’t deign to guess. Gor is bug-eyed and damp-looking; not all that thrilling for a villain.

Stephens and the rest of the Navy SEALs are uninteresting and unmemorable; there’s no reason to care about any of them. Ditto the majority of the crew of the Arkansas. Oh sure, they try to give a couple of the sailors something that makes them interesting, but it’s a fool’s errand.

“Hunter Killer” is long and dull, overstuffed despite having a woefully thin narrative. It should have been entertaining trash - all the pieces were there – but instead, it’s just a waste of your time.

[1.5 of 5]

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