It’s no trick for even the most ham-fisted global action thriller to achieve a ripped-from-the-headlines “topicality.” Just throw in a terrorist from the right enemy nation, or an American president with the right haircut. So it’s a weird and musty Twilight Zone indeed that one enters to watch “Hunter Killer,” a grindingly ponderous and bombastic neo-Cold War submarine thriller — how ponderous is it? It stars Gerard Butler, and he’s the most lighthearted thing about it — that in every relevant detail seems three years, if not two decades, behind the times.
Consider its take on the U.S. president. The character, played by Caroline Goodall, is transparently modeled on Hillary Clinton. As a result, one watches her scenes utterly removed from the drama (I use the term loosely) and preoccupied, instead, with thoughts like, “Was this film really shot that long ago?” It was. Principal photography on “Hunter Killer” began in July 2016, and the producers clearly based their script on the presumption that a certain Democratic candidate would end up as “Madame President.” Arriving in the thick of the madness of the Trump era, however, the film, intentionally or not, seems to say, “Who cares if she didn’t win? Even reality won’t make us budge.”
The movie’s version of the Russian leadership is, if anything, even more jarringly out-of-date. “Hunter Killer,” which is named for its lead submarine, is about an underwater face-off between the U.S. and Russia, but the plot hinges on an attempted coup. The Russian leader, President Zakarin (Alexander Dianchenko), is no autocratic Putin figure; he’s a decent diplomatic dude who seems to have graduated from the Gorbachev school of constructive engagement. He’s taken down in a military sabotage led by Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy), the runt-bully Minister of Defense, who comes off as sort of…Soviet. He’s like the joyless Communist version of a Bond villain from the mid-’60s.
There’s a lot to be scared of in the world today, but “Hunter Killer” summons all the topical urgency of a night spent re-watching “The Hunt for Red October” on Netflix. It’s a Cold War nostalgia movie, like something based on a Tom Clancy novel that long ago passed its sell-by date. Mostly, though, “Hunter Killer” will make you nostalgic for the era when people who made movies like this one actually knew what they were doing. It takes an entire hour for the movie to get to the coup attempt, and by the time that happens you realize that everything that led up to it has been a meaningless and over-extended set-up. Which is why it’s so dull.
Instead of launching the kind of countdown-to-doom excitement that has marked submarine thrillers like “Crimson Tide,” “Das Boot,” or “U-571,” “Hunter Killer” shifts over to a generic team of Navy SEALS (your heart will sink with tedium each time the film cuts to them), who have to bust into the Russian military compound where Durov has taken over. It’s their job to extract the Russian president, which they ultimately do. It’s then up to Butler’s tight-jawed, hardcore, battle-creased Capt. Joe Glass, commanding the USS Omaha, to give him safe haven and to defeat the Russian villain by refusing to get sucked into his game of chicken.
The twist, to the extent the movie has one, is that Butler, for all his terse swagger, is playing a good liberal. He’s the biggest bruiser on the submarine, but he’s got to teach the other men, like the ship’s fanatical XO (Carter MacIntyre), to get their torpedo-happy impulses under control. If the movie has a message, it’s this: Tough guys stand down.
But “Hunter Killer,” with its combination of rote action and “responsible” out-of-time schlock geopolitics, just left me wishing that it was a Steven Seagal movie. Butler showed flashes of unruly life in his last picture, the heist drama “Den of Thieves,” but here he’s back to his old granite scowl; he’s like the face of P.J. O’Rourke carved into a wooden nickel. Gary Oldman, in a performance given before he won the Oscar, shows up and goes blowhard hysterical as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Common, who seems to be carving out a career playing the kind of conservative establishment honchos you’d never expect Common to play, exudes a likable authority as a rear admiral in the situation room. Michael Nyqvist, in one of his last roles, has a mournful grace as a fallen Russian submarine captain. “Hunter Killer” has good enough actors, but it never figures out what to do with them. They’re stuck in an underwater vacuum, a submarine movie that submerges anything of interest.