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The Hunt for Red October: Special Edition

With its theatrical release in the spring of 1990, it was impossible to know that The Hunt for Red October would mark the end of a cinematic era — and in more ways than one. It arrived on the cusp of the digital revolution in filmmaking; a submarine thriller today would be expected to contain all sorts of CGI embellishments, but Red October's visuals were achieved primarily with models and practical effects (including an actual U.S. Navy sub used for the shoot, just before it was decommissioned). It also barely predated the influence of the new Asian cinema on American action films; most summer movies since then (including Die Hard 2, released just months later) have borrowed to one degree or another from the John Woo school of kung fu and fluid gunplay. And most notably, Red October was the last full-blown Cold War thriller. The quiet dissolution of the Soviet Union and its satellite governments made the threat of global communism virtually non-existent, and Hollywood has since gone looking for other arch-villain archetypes bent on global domination. Somehow then, it's fitting that the great cold warrior of the silver screen, Sean Connery, should top-line this affair. And while one would suspect that The Hunt for Red October should now wobble and rust like an abandoned Oldsmobile, thanks to the direction of John McTiernan it remains a solid, swift, intelligent action thriller that has aged better than many of those that have followed in its submerged wake. The events of Red October follow CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), a naval expert who is studying a technologically advanced submarine the Russians plan to launch. Christened the Red October, early spy photos of the vessel reveal an odd feature that Ryan can't decipher. It turns out that the anomaly is a new "caterpillar drive" that allows the craft to travel in virtual silence, giving it a dangerous first-strike capacity with its cargo of nuclear warheads. And with barely any information to go on, the CIA learns that Red October is on its maiden voyage, helmed by the mysterious Captain Ramius (Sean Connery), an ethnic Lithuanian known as "The Vilnius Schoolmaster." The fact that Ramius is Lithuanian gets Ryan's attention, particularly after the Russians launch their fleet in pursuit of Red October. Ryan thinks he knows why the Russians are nervous — Ramius, he insists to his superiors, is trying to defect. With little time to spare before the American fleet destroys the Russian sub, Ryan is forced to formulate a plan that will get him into direct contact with Ramius, helped in part by a sharp sonar operator (Courtney Vance) and submarine skipper Bert Mancuso (Scott Glenn).

*          *          *

Now that the "Jack Ryan" novels by Tom Clancy have become a substantial film franchise for Paramount, a return to the inaugural project illuminates what's gone wrong (and right) with the series. The subsequent films have had their shares of strengths and weaknesses, but Red October remains the strongest, in part because it ensures that characterizations motivate the plot; for what amount to an action film, there is little in the way of fisticuffs. Rather — and rightly so — the picture follows the twists and turns of the source novel, and the audience gets to enjoy watching some very intelligent people play a very high-stakes game of chess. Ryan becomes convinced of Ramius's plan, but he then spends the rest of the movie trying to persuade his government (and eventually Ramius) that the defection can succeed. Meanwhile, Ramius must avoid the Soviet fleet, utilizing all the tactics that made him one of the best sub commanders from either country. Director McTiernan, coming off two solid action films with Predator and Die Hard, is a great director for this material — he does an excellent job of setting up all of the little twists and turns that make each move so compelling. And while he was followed by both Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin is the only actor to date who's really made Jack Ryan his own, keeping the character's innate intelligence at the forefront of the performance. Meanwhile, the heavy lifting is left to screen icon Sean Connery, who makes the most of a complex character. The project is well served with wonderful supporting players — a dream cast that includes James Earl Jones (as Ryan's boss Admiral Greer), Jeffery Jones, Richard Jordan, Tim Curry, Glenn, Vance, and Sam Neill as Ramius' executive officer. In retrospect, Red October has become a better film over the years. Too often since, Hollywood action fare fails to understand that thrills and excitement don't have to come at the cost of the audience's intelligence. Paramount's second DVD release of The Hunt for Red October fixes several problems found on the original disc, released in 1998 for the early-adopter demographic. The film is now available in a new anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that improves upon its predecessor (ported directly from Laserdisc) — the image and colors are greatly improved. Also here to complement the original Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is a new DTS track, alongside standard 2.0 surround audio. Though not as bountiful as most re-release special editions, on board is a new audio commentary by John McTiernan that offers some keen observations (alongside some long pauses), as well as a brand-new documentary that interviews the major players, including McTiernan, Alec Baldwin, James Earl Jones, Scott Glenn, DP Jan De Bont, writer and costar Larry Ferguson, producer Mace Neufeld (among others), and interview footage of Sean Connery from the production (29 min.). It's a through documentary that covers most facets of the film's production, as well as the complications caused by shooting inside submarines. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.

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