If any film in Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series stands out as the best (or even a truly great movie), it's The Hunt for Red October. It was Clancy's first book starring the unlikely hero and the only film to star Alec Baldwin as Ryan. Baldwin does a great job here -- portraying Ryan not as a gung-ho commando, as Harrison Ford would interpret the role, or as a know-it-all brat, as Ben Affleck would shamefully turn in down the line.
Baldwin is perfect, but his sparring partner, Sean Connery, is even better. As a Russian sub captain defecting to the U.S. -- and bringing his titular, silent sub with him -- Connery turns in yet another memorable performance, full of ballsy gusto and cocksureness. Supporting players run the gamut from Sam Neill to James Earl Jones (the only real fixture in the Jack Ryan cycle) to Tim Curry.
And then there's the story, a clever, underwater, cat and mouse game that spans the Atlantic Ocean. Connery's Ramius wants to defect, but he can't send a radio signal to the Americans -- the Russians would intercept it. His officers are in on the defection as well, but the crew is not, so they must be dealt with as well, and mass murder is a messy option. When the Russians figure it out, Ramius finds the Red October being shot at from both sides -- all while Ryan has figured out the plan and becomes the sole voice of reason in the U.S. intelligence community (thus sending him across sea and air to save Red October from destruction (and the world along the way)).
If there's one problem in Red October it's the clumsy digital effects, which are used for the exterior underwater shots, especially when torpedoes are in the water. This unfortunately tends to be quite often, looking like the effects from 1980 instead of 1990. Presumably we have cinematographer Jan de Bont, who would later become a director himself and give us a few of the worst movies ever made, to blame for all of this. De Bont has a few memorable shots that don't involve cartoon torpedoes -- the scene when Ryan enters the Red October's nuclear missile bank is eerie in its sobering reality: This was the way World War III might have started, on the back of a stealthy sub carrying two dozen nuclear warheads.
McTiernan offers a commentary on the finally-released DVD, and a featurette shows some of the miniature work involved in making the film, plus the revelation that Kevin Costner was originally cast as Ryan. He backed out to do Dances with Wolves.