That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #12: What books?

Posted by kozemp on November 13, 2012

Here’s a saying I don’t toss around that often:

The Hunt for Red October is a perfect film.

Shit just got REAL.

We’ve reached the point in this little countdown thing where my ability to remain strictly objective has overtaken my available bandwidth, and the problem is going to get worse as things go on. But I’m confident that this time, at least, I am still standing on solid factual ground. The Hunt for Red October is a flawless film. It is perfect. There is not a single thing out of place, not one extraneous moment, not one missed opportunity in the entire thing. This is a rare treasure, indeed, and is not a notion to be tossed around lightly.

Even if it wasn’t a perfect movie – which it fucking well is – it is hard to argue that at the very least it is an absurdly good movie, especially when you consider its dusty provenance, from low-rent source material right down to a title that you stumble over the first couple times you come across it before it eventually comes vaguely poetic.

The Hunt for Red October is one of those movies that puts the lie to the notion that “the book is always better than the movie.” Because, seriously, fuck anyone who says that. Not even close. There are plenty of movies that are better than the books they’re based on. This isn’t even the only one on this list. Some of them are small leaps – The Princess Bride, for example, is already a pretty good book that got turned into another perfect film. Some of them, like The Hunt for Red October, are, well… big leaps. Clancy isn’t the terrible writer most people seem to want him to be, but the book is too blunt, too direct in its delivery. The book is, suffice it to say, not very artfully done.

But enough about the book, which I like enough to still have a reasonably valuable first print of someplace. The movie.

The movie, aside from its overall perfection, is stupid good, and even if you forget all the other great things about it – that is, to say, everything – you can tell it’s great because of one very simple, very specific thing: how much attention the movie pays to its supporting characters. Movies that pay a lot tend to be very good. Movies that skimp tend to be less so.

This is a movie that lavishes attention on its supporting cast as if they, collectively, were an only child on Christmas.

Now, in an ensemble movie, that’s not that surprising. This, however, is not an ensemble piece. It is a movie constructed around two huge characters who both, funnily enough, are essayed through very subdued performances. But even still. Think about any big-name actors picture, and then think about how many truly great supporting performances there are in it. This movie is full of them. Scott Glenn. Courtney Vance. Stellan Skarsgard. Most movies don’t get ONE supporting performance as astounding as those, and this movie is packed to the gills with them. Sam Neill. SAM MOTHERFUCKING NEILL IN THIS! “I would like to have seen Montana.” He blows the doors off the thing. And then there’s the guys who only get one or two quick scenes but their portrayals are huge and indelible. Jeffrey Jones. Fred Thompson. Tim Curry. Peter Firth. James Earl Jones. Joss Ackland. Richard Jordan. Oh, man, Richard Jordan, who was always so brilliant and understated in everything. Hell, even Moriarty gets a quick scene and a half that he’s great in. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an amazing performance in this movie.

That includes the leads, by the way. And Oscar aside, I don’t give a crap what anybody says, this is the performance of Connery’s career, aside from maybe Finding Forrester. He is constantly pulling off that acting miracle of making it clear that he’s thinking, but not letting you know WHAT he’s thinking. (This exact thing, incidentally, is also why Timothy Olyphant is so mesmerizing to watch, cause that son of a bitch can apparently do it all the time.) It’s the only truly minimalist performance of Connery’s career, at least that I can think of, and you have to wonder why he doesn’t do it all the time. The brilliant delivery of the very line I pulled as the title of this piece – which I still quote in conversation to this day whenever someone unspecifically talks about books – Connery manages to cram so much into those two words it’s fucking mind-blowing. The combination of face and voice is a two-word acting master class.

Connery had a voice for the ages, and he knew it, which is why he alone doesn’t bother with an affected Russian accent. And NO ONE CARES.

Now, then, a word about Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan.

I don’t think Baldwin was necessarily born to play Jack Ryan; if anything, it has become clear that he was born to play Jack Donaghy. But it’s hard to imagine a more perfect marriage of actor and character. For however good or bad the Harrison Ford movies are – Patriot Games is pretty weaksauce, but Clear and Present Danger is a quality little movie – Harrison Ford is not Jack Ryan. He never was, not for a second, and it’s part of what drags those movies down. Harrison Ford is a lot of things. Well, he’s many things. Well, he’s five or six things, but none of them, unfortunately, are Annapolis-graduate-mild-mannered-stockbroker-slash-historian.

Alec Baldwin – at least at this point in his career – is very much that. He is the embodiment of that. The genius of Jack Ryan, and the character himself is a pretty brilliant creation, is that he is a neurotic academic with a core of steel, and the movie is about Jack, who has happily become a housebroken keyboard jockey, remembering that once upon a time he used to be a serious asskicker. Harrison Ford is good at what the things he does, but “subtext” isn’t really one of them. We eventually learned that Baldwin got dropped from the series because of a pay or play that Paramount had with Harrison Ford, which is a damnable shame – I don’t know if Baldwin would have made the other films any better, but he certainly couldn’t have hurt.

Most movies, if they’re lucky, get one great performance. Two, if you’re exceedingly lucky, maybe three if you hit the casting powerball. The Hunt for Red October has thirteen. THIRTEEN! It’s embarrassing. It’s also a clinic. Want to learn how to be an awesome actor? Watch anybody in The Hunt For Red October.

What better to learn from than perfection?

JLK

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