Tony Scott (1944-2012) – A Recollection

My blog was dead for last one and half year and for that I apologize. I intend to get back to reviewing as soon as possible, especially that I gained access to a lot of older movies I need to analyze. What made me get back to it is the tragedy that happened a few days ago at the San Pedro bridge in Los Angeles.

One could say that suicide happens to the best of us. Hearing of it though is always a huge shock and the event is always a huge tragedy and nothing else can be said. To hear that happening to a very active, constantly working – either as a producer or as a director – man is particularly shocking.

Tony Scott didn’t have great press with critics, he wasn’t exactly a very appreciated director. Definitely not as much respected as his older brother Ridley. They said that he preferred style over substance, that the characters aren’t well-developed, that his movies are sometimes messy. Granted, The Fan, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 remake (especially if you know the 1970s original!), Days of Thunder aren’t exactly masterpieces and that’s being delicate, but my experience with his movies may hint at something completely else.

I don’t know if it’s symptomatic or not, but most of my reviews on this blog are of Tony Scott’s movies. I tend to go through them in no chronological sequence every year. Why? Because of the pure quality of the filmmaking. Enemy of the State, Spy Game, Crimson Tide (especially that one!), Man on Fire, these are all amazing movies. I own four of his on DVD. Perhaps I shouldn’t speak about his films, because I still haven’t seen The Hunger. Maybe also, because I haven’t seen Revenge yet, but I have seen the rest of his films.

Tony Scott has been in my life since I got interested in cinema. Of course, I knew Top Gun, but the most interesting story I have from the “period before The Rock” was watching The Fan with my parents and brothers not long before my passion started. What happened then is a testament to that movie’s, well, lack of brilliance. During the movie I managed to predict the whole script as the movie happened. Yes, I knew that the weird scene made completely in red (I still remember how my eyes hurt!) was Robert de Niro murdering Wesley Snipes’ biggest competitor, I knew that he would dress as the umpire just based on single shots I saw. That was a very interesting experience to a person having completely no idea about script structure, editing, cinematography, nothing whatsoever. My next memorable experience was watching Crimson Tide, which I did to check out the Hans Zimmer score which got so rave reviews from my early research done on (to think of it!) dial-up internet. And I loved the movie, now it’s one of my personal favorites.

There are many “Tony Scott” elements, the style is impeccably his own. The quick, choppy editing, dynamic camera work, using a lot of narrative shortcuts. The emotional key to his movies was intensity though. Hard to say rollercoaster, especially when it sounds ironic in context of his last two movies being about trains, but they were very intense. Great suspense building, great use of quick cuts and great camera work. Because yes, Tony Scott, just like his older brother, was one of the guys who were able to handle hand-held. All the filters, all the editing, all great. Also the consequence of a film like Man on Fire. Going totally avant-garde at the age of 60 years and and being consequent with it. I have to admit – I started a review of the movie, but didn’t finish it. Now I deeply regret it as I see it as a masterpiece, unheralded though. The intensity may have come through, because, as he admitted in his Spy Game commentary (quoting from memory) “The general rule of thumb is that a page of a script is a minute of the movie, but in my case the rule of thumb says that a page makes for 2/3 of film. That’s just because of my concentration span.”

He was also brilliant in his director’s commentaries. Always to the point, telling very interesting anecdotes, but also very candid about his process, about his decision. Anybody who wants to know about how a big director works (worked, sadly, in this case) should hear what he did for at least Spy Game and Man on Fire. Many memories now quickly appearing in all possible outlets, including Twitter and Facebook (Harry Gregson-Williams’ recollection is particularly touching), and big magazines like Hollywood Reporter, are saying how warm and great he was as a person. Those commentaries show his warmth. And humility. The way he finished his Man on Fire commentary with a simple “Thanks for listening and I hope you enjoyed the movie” shows, in a very touching way, that he was a very thoughtful, humble and simply nice man, who was an inspiration to many. One of my dreams was to meet and talk to both of Scott brothers. I hope that I’ll be able to do it with the one, sorry if it sounds brutal, left. He’s also said to be a very down-to-earth and inspiring, candid man.

Last, but not least, Tony Scott was an inspiration for me. Last year, two of my best friends, Richard Carter and Liri Navon inspired me to take part in a 15-page script contest. I was hesitating, but I finally caved in and wrote those 15 pages. All was based on a logline, which made me invent a political thriller happening in China (which is something I always wanted to do). It was also the first time I was watching films for inspiration. One of them was Spy Game, one of my all-time favorite spy thrillers ever made. The reason was the amount of flashbacks used to tell the story. I didn’t stop with that. I also saw Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State, because of their impeccable pacing and the storytelling I told a few paragraphs ago. At some point, after I already sent my submission and decided to go further with the story, because it got positive feedback from my friends (with my lack of experience in such things, positive and warm feedback does help me keep going) I realized that my way of telling the story in the script is heavily based on the Tony Scott sense of intensity. I have not finished it yet, but, since it is a homage to this great filmmaker, I will finish it to honor his talent.

RIP Tony Scott. You were a great director ad you taught me a lot. Even if I don’t know what to make out of your lessons yet, I know that some day, I’ll put them to good use.

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How It All Started…

I thought you might be interested in how my interest in film and filmmaking started and after watching The Rock the whole mindset got back to me and brought memories back.

Picture me, 13 year old. At the time I was very much fascinated with special operations team. Around then a game came out called Police Quest: SWAT. It was a weird combination of FMV (full motion video, for readers too young to remember – it’s fully filmed with actors and took lots of CDs, this one in particular took 4). So here was me fascinated will at the SWAT stuff, I got really nerdy about it and my brother tells me about two movies that features such teams with big exposure. These were The Rock and Executive Decision. He also praised the music to The Rock after seeing both in the cinema.

So finally we rented The Rock on VHS, yes, those were the days. And I loved it. I loved the music too and I bought the cassette not long afterwards (my first consciously bought film score that made me a huge fan of Hans Zimmer, which I am to this day). That’s when it came to me. I want to be a filmmaker. I used modem internet by then and somehow I found a writing template for MS Word, which I downloaded really quickly. The first script I tried to write but of course never finished was a sequel to The Rock. The details are very sketchy 13 years later, but I know it featured children of both Mason and Goodspeed and of course their parents too.

Interestingly first shots in my head featured Harrison Ford and Helen Hunt and the next story I tried to write was something connected to IRA, featuring two families going to vacation together. I know that the first scene was a SWAT sniper accidentally taking out the main characters’ father during an entry and it related to that. The story was about Irish terrorists (some of the first music I wrote too!) going to America, taking over a leisure place where two familes (I took Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser as a huge fan of Mad About You, my friend who I wanted to do it with demanded, yes, Pamela Anderson as the other character), escaping the place and getting back in with a SWAT team, in a twist similar to The Rock. How did I ground 12-13 year olds getting in fully armed, I don’t know. I know that one featured a very violent scene where somebody (one of the kids?) would put an impact drill into somebody’s heart, self-defense of course. I still remember how I imagined the bleeding.

We had a camera and I would film home parties in Bourne style. The biggest zoom possible, very much hand-held. 3 years later we started building a house and I filmed the documentary of building the house. I was concentrating on what was built and yet again I didn’t use a tripod (which I had at the time already, I still have that one), which annoyed my dad especially, because I wouldn’t show people, just the stuff that was new. Dad got back to that footage a year or two ago and edited it and that film came out pretty nice. Great to see what editing can do to very raw footage by a very inexperienced 15 year old. I am still willing to make a director’s cut of it…

I kept writing scripts, shorts. I got one finished, then with a friend I wrote an action story, which was basically a feature-length story compacted to about 20 pages. I remember how we wanted a girl to play one of the main characters and we handed her the script when she was shocked after a minor accident she and her family had when they were leaving their grandparents, that wasn’t very professional. Neither were my directing attempts. I wouldn’t learn my mistakes, I was very insecure and always the cast would take over some decisions, but interestingly the shots that came out best were the ones that were in my head. Still, failures.

Now I am here, over 10 years later and my experience hasn’t changed a lot. I’ve got 4 finished feature scripts (first one written when I was 15), of which two in English. Working on my third English-language one. I calmed down to being quite static with my camera work ideas. I haven’t tried much except some practice and filming some things in London, namely jazz concerts, thanks to my great friend, Richard who hosted me and gave me a great lighting excercise which  I really cherish. The credit for making me try things out goes definitely to him so here is a huge thank you to him. Two of the scripts were written with, who I believe, is a very talented actress originally from Israel, in mind. Today she has a blog by the name of Saffron Copper and for anybody liking nice and warm, funny writing and great photography and some beautiful female celebrities (and a cool animated character, not by her, sadly!), should go to her blog at Richard’s site is also in my blogroll and is heavily recommended to anyone liking/interested in Berlin and basically, to anybody who loves great and intelligent writing. My two best friends.

I am still here, dreaming and slowly getting to start doing the stuff I want. Working on a Ph. D. in literature doesn’t quite help, but we are where we are. I thought you would like to know more about where I am coming from and even with my onset experience (also on a very bad non-budget comedy where I operated the boom and acted in one scene), I cherish those memories very much. Good days ahead.

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Apollo 13 (1995)

The mission of Apollo 13 was observed with great interest and fear. First and only time in the history of American space flight the crew was in grave danger during the flight itself after a series of equipment failures rendered their craft almost inoperative. The movie was made 25 years after the accident.

Simply titled, Apollo 13, was directed by Ron Howard and boasts an all-star cast including Tom Hanks (Jim Lovell), Bill Paxton (Fred Haise, Sr.), Kevin Bacon (Jack Swigert), Gary Sinise (Ken Mattingly), Ed Harris (Gene Kranz) and Kathleen Quinlan (Marylin Lovell). Dean Cundey, known among others for his work on Jurassic Park was the cinematographer and James Horner’s score was among two of his that were nominated for an Oscar that year. The movie is based on Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger’s account of the story, “The Lost Moon”.

The storytelling and filmmaking aspect of the movie is very interesting. Apollo 13 must be about the only movie in cinema history which largely takes place in space, but is not science-fiction. Ron Howard directly contacted Jim Lovell about the movie and was told to tell the story right, which he took very seriously. Everybody working on the project was passionate about it, especially Tom Hanks who was very interested about space program (later he and Ron Howard would produce a mini-series about the Apollo program called From Earth to Moon). NASA was very supportive, too, having allowed the crew and cast to contact Mission Controllers and providing invaluable equipment for the movie. Not only that, they also let them film in original locations and during zero-gravity flights of the plane KC-135 (tenderly referred to by astronauts as The Vomit Comet). Almost 4 hours of material was filmed in weightless environment during 600 parabolas, which took 23 seconds each. The rest of the capsule footage was filmed in a studio, which proved a huge challenge for the camera and editing departments. For the camera department, because it had to have a coherent lighting setup and while the plane’s fuselage is obviously a very constrained space, in the studio they had as much of it as they wanted. For the editors, because obviously weightless shots were different than what was filmed to fake it in a studio. It worked seamlessly and I wouldn’t recognize what was done where had I not watched Ron Howard’s commentary. Another thing about the directing is that while Howard tends to be very schmaltzy and heavy-handed, this time he pulls the story off without any of that. Rarely the kind of depicted pathos is called for, but this time it is and works.

This is helped by the plethora of amazing performances by actors. Nobody hams their performances. Acting-wise, Apollo 13 is a wonderful example of restraint. Having that cast of course, did help, because every actor in the movie is a master of their game and a lot of the acting is handled by gazes, muscle movements. Kevin Bacon’s almost unnoticeable and tired smile sometimes even steals the show. Some lines that are of the inspiring Americana don’t get corny just because their are pulled off with great depth. Having been an acting star himself, Ron Howard definitely knew how to elicit a great performance and how to build a great atmosphere to act properly. A perfect example is one of Ed Harris’s final close-ups in the film. Knowing the story before that and knowing how the actor prepared for the role, Howard asked him if he wanted his close-up to be filmed right before filming the mastershot (a general, wide shot that establishes the scene to the audience and to the crew and cast on the set, basically set up who is supposed to be standing and to be looking in which direction). Harris said yes and that’s the take (a great one, to add) that ended up in the final cut. In the commentary, the director just simply says “Thank God it was in focus”. In general, just letting them do the job and even ad-libbing some of the material – a technique which would later prove very effective on one of his best movies – Frost/Nixon. A lot of those were created and delivered by actors playing the flight controllers. Based on the original mission loops and on discussions with technical advisors, the actors sometimes just said a line that would either add some realistic technical language or, in at least one instance, explained what was happening in layman’s terms. The technical language proved to be a problem, since most of it of course isn’t understandable to everybody (Howard himself had to go through a physics course), but finding some of the original television footage helped with explanation immensely. The TV was thus basically used to explain some of the plot and it works subtly and effectively. If we divided the characters in the movie in three groups – the craft, Mission Control and the Lovell family, all three groups are led by, respectively, Tom Hanks, Ed Harris and Kathleen Quinlan. This is a brilliant move.

James Horner’s score still remains one of his best as heard in film. This one in particular works so well in huge part due to a very intelligent approach. Horner, infamous for his self-repetitions, has a huge bag of tricks, definitely aided by the fact that, having a Ph. D. in composition, right now he most probably is the most educated composer working in the film industry. Not particularly renowned for restraint (though some earlier scores and small-scare works do show some of that), this score is an excercise in it. A lot of the movie’s suspense resolves around changing locations – usually from the craft to the Mission Control in Houston. Using solo trumpet, various percussion tricks (like accelerating cymbals, toms with the help of crashing piano chords, deliberate snare rhythms – particularly important for the Americana character for the movie), he very precisely addresses the cuts and by that greatly enhances the suspense. A particularly smart and almost symbolic moment comes in the scene where they are looking for four more ampers in the training simulator. This great suspense sequence is approached with subtle and slowly raising strings with subtle percussion (woodblocks, later an added snare) and then a very interesting, eerie, yet enticing cymbal effect. However it was performed, it sounds like the electronic impulses were just passing through and that is done exactly 4 times once in a while. Great instrumental creativity that Horner rarely shows. A pivotal scene in the movie uses the fantastically cold and yet enticing voice of Annie Lennox, who got full credit for her performance. And also something that is very cool for a score fan – rarely you can say that one of your favorite pieces is Carbon Dioxide. Sadly, the way to get the score isn’t particularly legal, because the best presentation is a For Your Consideration Academy Promo, which has a much better selection of the score than the official soundtrack does. The promo was largely bootlegged.

There are many inaccuracies which I didn’t discuss in this review, but Ron Howard acknowledges and explains them. I want to write a more detailed post about it, but I want to say that Ron Howard’s commentary is very informative and brilliant and I think shows the perfect attitude of a director – crediting everyone for their ideas, not having a huge ego and at all time emphasizing the fact that the aim was simply telling the story right. And this shows in the movie. This is the most realistic movie about space flight ever made and it was meant to be. The acting, the cinematography, everything was concerned with telling the story and everybody on the project was passionate about. What we have is a perfect example of inspiring Americana, where Americans are shown to be working a problem and solving it and saving souls. What’s great about it, is that it really happened. Apollo 13 is a great adventure drama about a space mission gone awry. Definitely recommended.


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John Barry (1933-2011) – A Recollection

My first contact with John Barry wasn’t a nice one. Of course at that time I’ve heard Dances with Wolves at least once and I already knew his famous James Bond theme (who didn’t). It was a time when the competition between the Polish film music websites wasn’t particularly nice and fair (and the one I am reviewing for right now didn’t even exist at the time). It occured that almost all the new reviews on the website, four out of presented five on the main page were John Barry scores and the new releases weren’t covered that well. I got into a not very nice fight about what he meant in the genre and, what’s worse, boy, I was wrong.

That was when I decided to listen to his music more. I listened to scores like King Rat, most of the Bond scores (I did own a song compilation, but never heard the scores at the time), Ipcress File, Quiller Memorandum, The Lion in Winter, The Last Valley… Huge classics. And then I started to love him. John Barry was one of a kind. An amazing tunesmith. If I was supposed to define his music in one word, if that is even possible, “beautiful” would be that word. Not particularly high on tempo (being a fanboy of Hans Zimmer and loving other major composers didn’t help much here), Barry was always evocative, created pretty tunes even for rather lousy movies, beautifully orchestrated, especially for his favorite woodwind instrument that must have been the flute. Even after a stylistic change in the 1980s, where he seemed to have ditched his jazz inspirations (except James Bond of course) and went for a highly romantic orchestral style, his music remained emotional, soothingly intense and yes, beautiful.

Many people may argue about what the best John Barry score was. Was it The Lion in Winter, was it Dances with Wolves? Dances with Wolves is a perfect example of a brilliant return. After finishing The Living Daylights, the composer was struck with an illness that almost killed him. He spent 3 years fighting it, losing on the final Timothy Dalton James Bond movie (Living Daylights proved to be his final score in the series after having scored most of it) and returned to score Kevin Costner’s now-legendary Dances with Wolves. I believe that this was a hugely personal work for the composer, who infused all the sadness, dread and also hope into the score. Insanely thematic, with a very big scope and with a plethora of themes, one more beautiful than the other, this is a masterpiece. A work of a returning master who put everything, his passion, his experience into a singular work of art. Much can and should be say about the dreary and suspenseful score to The Lion in Winter (a movie I still have to watch!) with brilliant medieval choral writing and orchestrations almost taken right from a horror.

Today, John Barry died of a heart attack. He hasn’t worked for 9 long years already. His last score was Enigma, an old school spy drama starring Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet. His sound was perfect for that genre. Sadly, he wouldn’t score another movie. Before he died he wrote a musical based on a Graham Greene novel (Brighton Rock), a choral album and was in preparations for one of his concept albums (first one was a jazz album called The Americans, then in the 1990s he released The Beyondness of Things, reportedly featuring parts of his rejected score for The Horse Whisperer, and Eternal Echoes). He will be sorely missed. When I gave his music a proper listen, I boarded the rather crowded ship with fans. It’s another classic master that left us in last few years. Rest in Peace, Mr. Barry!

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The Rock (1996)

A rogue Brigade General hijacks rockets with chemical weapons and seizes the legendary prison of Alcatraz. A Navy SEAL team including a former prisoner and an FBI chemical specialist infiltrates the facility. In the process the SEAL team gets killed leaving the prisoner and agent the only survivors…

Michael Bay’s The Rock was the final collaboration between producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. While they announced their split after the production finished (Bruckheimer went on to produce Con Air on his own), Simpson died of drug overdose before the premiere and the movie is dedicated to him. The movie, the second feature by now infamous Michael Bay, features a stellar cast, starring Nicolas Cage as the FBI agent Stanley Goodspeed, Sean Connery as John Patrick Mason (a funny mishap appeared on the VHS cover of the movie, where, in the copy I watched, the character was called Jason Patrick Mason, the DVD I have now doesn’t have that mistake) and Ed Harris as Brigadier General Francis X. Hummel, the commander of the rogue Force Recon Marines. Notable supporting cast features William Forsythe as the San Francisco FBI director, John Spencer as the general FBI director Womack, Michael Biehn as the SEAL Commander Anderson, Danny Nucci as one of the team members, covering Mason, David Morse as Major Tom Baxter, Hummel’s second-in-command and John C. McGinley as one of Hummel’s Captains.

In this movie, Michael Bay did two things right that he never did afterwards and, really, in Bad Boys, his big screen debut – storytelling and acting. Known for not wanting to really film intimate scenes and doing those in a very small amount of takes, Bay isn’t famous for particularly great acting (managing to waste Jon Voight, Ewan McGregor, Bruce Willis, Scarlett Johansson and Djimon Honsou demands a lot of “talent”) and the way he propels the story makes it seem like a random shots put together working better or (usually) worse. A lot of the problem is related to the fact that he tends to make really short cuts. He never stops the camera and tells everything in a bunch of very short shots. Not that it ever becomes confusing, there simply isn’t much of a story there usually. He jumps from scene to scene just to concentrate on the big action. Not this time. Above all, this time Bay slowed down. It very positively affects the storytelling aspect of the film. Still edited pretty quickly, the movie gets a more natural rhythm by the fact that for suspense and in more character-oriented scenes, the editing is slowed down. For at least a long time, Bay regarded The Rock as his best movie and we can see why. It is still visually very good. The fact that the director prefers a moving camera for the course of the movie and has a very good eye for angles, gives it a certain style. Made in 1996, The Rock still looks great. John Schwartzman’s cinematography (interestingly, a cousin of Nicolas Cage) features great use of lighting, shadows (especially the first scene with Hummel smoking, look at the way the smoke is lit!) and composition. Of course, some shots could be longer, but there is a sense of a story, an internal rhythm to the movie and the suspense rises when it should rise. That’s all you want from an action movie.

Another big asset of The Rock, especially in context of Bay’s now quite prolific career, is the acting. Ed Harris maybe plays the part a bit one-note and while he is quite likable (that is courtesy of producer Don Simpson who after watching a documentary decided to make Hummel memorable by the fact that he is a way more complex character than the typical villain), he doesn’t get much of an opportunity to smile or play warm, which he definitely could more, as hinted by the first scene at his wife’s grave and a conversation he has with some schoolgirls before taking over Alcatraz. He did the movie for the money, but still he is professional and the performance is a highlight of the whole movie. Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery are plain fun to watch. Connery delivers an auto-ironic and older twist on his James Bond persona and pulls it off with huge class. In fact, while Harris (and later Bruce Willis) would speak very badly of Michael Bay’s directing style, Connery stood up for him personally when there was a possibility of getting the director fired by the executives (Connery came along with Bay to a meeting with executives and his praise basically sealed the deal of Bay staying onboard). Cage delivers Goodspeed with a very quirky personality. In fact for humor purposes, Bay made Connery and Cage improvise their humorous exchanges in Alcatraz. This among with some of Bay’s visual choices gives the movie a unique atmosphere, not something that can be said about many action movies. Pity, Bay didn’t use the opportunity to add humor in some of the SEAL scenes. There was at least one, when Mason has to literally go through fire to open the tunnels to the infiltrating team. Quite scared, the soldier covering him asks to be relieved of his duty for that moment. All Michael Biehn’s Anderson says to that is a deadpan “Stand fast, Lieutenant”. This was a wasted opportunity. Biehn in general is good, he usually is, but the character is a tad too patriotic to give a possibility of pushing him in the direction of having a bit more of a personality. John Spencer and William Forsythe are very good, especially the unlikable Womack is eventually a really fun character to watch. Morse is brilliant as Baxter, but not much more can be said here. The script and perhaps Bay didn’t thrive on the opportunity to give the Marines more of unique personalities, just a bunch of professional mercenaries. Knowing the conflict that ensues by the end of the movie, having them as more distinct character could help a bit.

The score works very well, but is very messy. The backstory here shows that it couldn’t be any different in the background it was created in. First composer slated to score it was Nick Glennie-Smith, who co-created Hans Zimmer’s sound in the mid-90s and additional composer on scores such as Crimson Tide and in this case most importantly Bay’s debut film Bad Boys. Based on that work, he was hired for The Rock. Bay loved the arrangements but hated the themes and as a last resort Hans Zimmer was brought in to add some themes and rearrange some cues accordingly. The rescue job was done with the help of Harry Gregson-Williams (who got a prominent additional music credit in the movie and – interestingly – a main credit on the album), Steven M. Stern, Don Harper and an uncredited Russ Landau. The resulting score is highly effective but probably psychologically ruined Glennie-Smith. Zimmer never wanted to be officially credited for the rescue job on what “was always a Nick score”, as he once put it. The album, most often associated with Zimmer, was a huge success and started many people’s interest in film music including yours truly. What can I say, it IS fun.

The Rock is a modern classic and the only instance of a Michael Bay movie that really makes sense. Bad Boys was huge fun, but had many mistakes that could be explained by the fact that it was a commercial director first attempt at a feature. Both movies showed a potential which the director completely and utterly wasted in further efforts. Maybe a lot of it doesn’t make sense, maybe the way the military procedure is shown is completely wrong (where is Michael Mann when you need him? Bay never thought of getting his actors through proper training? I mean, a boot camp?), but still. The Rock is fun, tense, well-made, well-acted and well-told. I wonder if the director doesn’t still regard it as his best movie. Almost 15 years after it was made, it still looks very good and gets all the points it should get. Heavily recommended.


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The Hunt for Red October (1990)

The Soviets create a new superquiet submarine. The captain that takes her on the maiden voyage has his own plans about her, which puts Soviet and American Navy in a heavy operation. A young CIA analyst has his own theory about the captain’s plans…

The Hunt for the Red October. This classic submarine thriller being an adaptation of the also classic Tom Clancy novel (which got popularity and publicity after Ronald Reagan publicly praising it during a press conference, a huge compliment for the writer who values the president very highly and himself is Republican) was made in 1990. Directed by Predator’s John McTiernan, it starred Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan, the operative, and Sean Connery as Marko Ramius, the captain who wants to defect. Notable supporiting performances are James Earl Jones as CIA’s Deputy Director of Intelligence Admiral James Greer (though his position is never quite stated in the movie), Scott Glenn as the USS Dallas skipper Scott Glenn, Stellan Skarsgard in a minor part of Captain Tupolev and Courtney B. Vance as the sonar operator Ron Jones. Tim Curry has also an interesting semi-comedic entry as the Red October’s doctor, Yevgeniy Petrov.

This review is going to be a bit different before, because not only I know the novel itself, but I’ve also read the whole so-called Ryanverse, every single novel (until Dead or Alive, which has been published last November in the US and still not translated to Polish) about Jack Ryan, Clancy’s recurring character. His novels are usually very large-scale in proportions and with very precise use of subplots, which demands a huge toning down of the story so it fits a single feature movie. In this case, they cut most of the scenes regarding the military moves of the British (also involved in the case) and Soviet. All left here is USS Enterprise, a Soviet Bear Foxtrot torpedo plane and, as a signal of the danger of the situation to the very volatile equilibrium between both sides of the Cold War, a plane crash on board USS Enterprise. A sadly left-out character is the pilot Robby Jackson, personally one of Jack Ryan’s best friends, who accompanies him in the bulk of Ryanverse. The only adaptation this character appeared in was Patriot Games, where he was played by Samuel L. Jackson.

Jack Ryan is a difficult character to cast. It demands an actor with huge emotional range and charisma, but also he has to look like an everyman. The idea is not to give him an Arnold Schwarzenegger look. The character is a researcher who has very strong principles and can act heroically when the situation demands. He is not a typical action hero, he’s just a normal guy put in a very difficult situation, also on political and moral levels. Alec Baldwin plays him very well. James Earl Jones (who’d get to play him in next two movies in the series) is the perfect Admiral Greer, charismatic actor with a respectable look. The casting choice here is perfect. Sean Connery as Ramius is really, well, Sean Connery. A very nice performance, but he does play with his trademark lisp and Scottish accent. What’s interesting is that the character was supposed to be played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, but he broke his leg and recommended Connery. He agreed after he learnt that the script is about Cold War and came to the set literally a day before filming started. He asked to have a day off to prepare and it was granted. Glenn’s Bart Mancuso and Vance’s Jones are played very well. Particularly good scene is where Ryan tries to convince Mancuso that the orders he was given were wrong. Glenn, taking the arguments in while commanding the submarine, is a joy to watch.

The movie was photographed by Jan de Bont, a famous cinematographer-turned-infamous-director. It’s interesting to compare it to my last reviewed submarine movie, Crimson Tide. McTiernan’s film is bleaker in colors than Scott’s, who is almost all about contrast. What the movies have in mind are changing light color schemes related to changes in the submarine’s own lighting and a huge sense of chiaroscuro, I’d dare to say in Red October it looks a tad more artistic. There are much less stranger angles here than in Crimson Tide and the average shot length is about twice as longer as with the regular Tony Scott film, let alone Crimson Tide in particular. De Bont was a very respected cinematographer and he is very good here as well. It’s one of the last movies he shot, before he went into directing films.

Basil Poledouris’s score is regarded as a classic. Much less masculine than Hans Zimmer’s Crimson Tide which is sometimes seen as a more testosterone-driven update of this sound (and that would be unfair to both composers), it works brilliantly. When I saw the plane crash sequence (and I saw the movie many times already), this time I actually flinched when the plane crashed and most of the effect was provided by the score. Rather than emphasizing the claustrophobic character of a submarine, Poledouris seems more taken with the beauty of the underwater (which of course was filmed in a studio using smoke and models). This and the Soviet-based plotline of the movie warranted the use of a full choir. The Hymn, starting the movie, is already regarded as a classic, but for a Slavic person like me, the pronounciation of the Russian lyrics (most probably written phonetically, is very funny. Poledouris himself wrote the English lyrics that got translated by Herrmann Sinitzin. What we get is an American choir singing in Russian.

The Hunt for the Red October is a very good movie. The acting is really good and while for a fan of Clancy the omission of Robby Jackson is sad (he’s just a cool character with huge influence later on), but understandable. The cinematography, storytelling and music are also very big assets. Of four Tom Clancy adaptations only the last one (Sum of All Fears) is bad, though Clear and Present Danger simplifies the story of the novel (a rather complex if not epic one) a bit too much and for a fan, they commited a large crime to the continuity of the universe. All in all a classic that is maybe not a masterpiece, but still a very good movie.


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I’m sorry for not updating the blog for a long time, but I got pretty ill recently, ill enough not to think of doing any writing.

Thank you for your reading anyway. There are still interesting things to come on the blog in near future, I almost got over the flu.

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