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HUNTER KILLER

Producer: Neal H. Moritz, Toby Jaffe, Gerard Butler, Alan Siegel, Tucker Tooley, Mark Gill, John Thompson, Matt O'Toole and Les Weldon
Director: Donovan Marsh
Writer: Arnie L. Schmidt and Jamie Moss
Stars: Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman, Common, Michael Nyqvist, Linda Cardellini, Toby Stephens, Zane Holtz, Carter MacIntyre, Caroline Goodall, Alexander Diachenko, Mikhail Gorevoy and Yuri Kolokolnikov
Studio: Summit Entertainment

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All of Gerard Butler’s recent action vehicles—“Olympus Has Fallen,” “London Has Fallen,” “Geostorm”—have been ridiculous, but “Hunter Killer” might very well take the brass ring for absurdity. Set in an alternate reality where the president of the United States is a woman—it was obviously shot when it was assumed Hillary Clinton would win—and her Russian counterpart is a Gorbachev-like peacenik considered weak by his underlings, it resembles nothing more than a Cold War submarine melodrama uneasily transposed to the contemporary world.

Butler plays Joe Glass, captain of the USS Arkansas, a nuclear sub called into action after two other subs—one Russian, the other American—are sunk under the arctic ice. The twin disaster is somehow related to a coup attempt—Russian President Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko) is taken captive by Admiral Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy), his hard-line Defense Minister, at a fortress-like naval base—though precisely how is never really explained.

American president Ilene Dover (Caroline Goodall), prodded by her dyspeptic Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Donnegan (Gary Oldman, in full wild-man mode), puts US forces on alert when the US sub goes down, but also agrees to a suggestion by Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common) that Glass, newly assigned to the Arkansas, should look into what’s happening. Glass, an unconventional commander who’s risen through the ranks rather than being an Annapolis man, destroys another sub that attacks his ship but then endangers his own vessel to rescue survivors from the first sunken Russian sub, including its captain Sergei Andropov (Michael Nyqvist), whom he informs that his ship was the victim of sabotage, not a torpedo.

Fisk, working clandestinely with sharp NSA official Jayne Norquist (Linda Cardellini), has also ordered a team of Navy SEALS led by gruff veteran Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens) to infiltrate and reconnoiter the Russian base to provide direct evidence of what is going on. (The entire section of the movie dealing with them is as conventionally gung-ho—and incredibly boring—as you can imagine.) They prove that Zakarin has been seized by Durov, who is planning to use the events to prompt a direct confrontation with the US, and at Norquist’s suggestion a decision is taken to have Beaman’s team free the captive Zakarin and deliver him to the Arkansas for safe conduct beyond Durov’s control.

Fortunately Andropov, now convinced of Durov’s perfidy, not only helps Glass maneuver the Arkansas deep into the Russian base but proves instrumental in preventing the American vessel from being eliminated by a Russian destroyer ordered by Durov to—well—destroy it. The employment of a bunch of ordinary Russian seamen, nodding like an assortment of bobble-head dolls, as ordinary-folk heroes at the close is somehow appropriate, reemphasizing the nonsensicality of the picture’s ending.

Glass doesn’t save the situation singlehandedly, in the way that Butler’s secret service agent Mike Banning did in “Olympus” and “London” and his satellite genius Jake Lawson did in “Geostorm,” but he’s still portrayed as a singularly brilliant fellow whose intuitions always prove right. To italicize that, he’s provided with Annapolis-educated Executive Officer Brian Edwards (Carter MacIntyre), a fresh-faced zealot who bristles at his commander’s unorthodox approach and habit of dismissing orders to go his own way, but in the end must gaze in amazement at how well he’s pulled it all off. You half-expect him to put his boss up for canonization.

Every aspect of the script of “Hunter Killer,” written in the spirit of a juvenile potboiler by Arne Schmidt and Jamie Moss, is ludicrous, from the basic premise to the individual episodes and each and every line of cliché-ridden dialogue, and Donovan Marsh directs in the same spirit. The level of characterization—from Butler’s stone-faced Glass, MacIntyre’s flummoxed Edwards and Stephens’ rasping Beaman to Oldman’s exasperated Donnegan, Gorevoy’s snide Durov and Zane Holtz’s boyish but unstoppable SEAL—lacks any depth, and the actors all respond accordingly. The only cast members who emerge unscathed are Common, who underplays so abjectly that his presence barely registers, and Nyqvist, whose somber, nearly silent performance brings some real gravity to his scenes. It’s sad to think that this will probably be that fine actor’s screen swan song.

Though there’s always room for a good submarine movie, this silly one, with its comic book plot and cardboard characters, sinks like a stone.

LIFE ITSELF

Producer: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey, Aaron Ryder and Dan Fogelman
Director: Dan Fogelman
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Antonio Banderas, Anette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Lorenzas Izzo, Isabel Durant and Samuel L. Jackson
Studio: Amazon Studios

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The second film to bear the title “Life Itself” in recent years is definitely the lesser of the two. The first was Steve James’s documentary about the later years of Roger Ebert, who soldiered on after losing his lower jaw as the result of surgery. It was powerful stuff. The latest is a pretentious, sappy drama of interlinking stories from Dan Fogelman, who has struck a chord with a wide television audience with his nighttime NBC soap opera “This Is Us,” and here tries to pull off a similar trick on the big screen. He fails miserably, the big life lessons he doles out having about the same level of meaning as the Deep Thoughts Jack Handey used to deliver on “Saturday Night Live.”

The picture opens with an infuriating start-and-stop Manhattan-set prologue, in which Samuel L. Jackson, in a ranting voiceover, introduces bearded street guy Will (Oscar Isaac) making a pest of himself in a coffee shop by serenading the customers with a boisterous rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” (later explained as a love song in an album drenched in despair). But in another bit, we see a happier, beardless Will and psychologist Dr. Morris (Annette Bening), whom, it turns out, his grubbier self is seeing to deal with the absence of his beloved wife Abby (Olivia Wilde).

Finally the on-and-off prologue is revealed as the hapless attempt of forlorn Will to begin a script—a therapeutic exercise, perhaps?—and Jackson disappears screaming about unreliable narrators, to be replaced by an unseen female one whose identity will be revealed only much later on. We begin the official Chapter 1 in Fogelman’s portentous presentation, about the romance and marriage of happy Will and effervescent Abby, an English lit grad student who is writing a thesis about—you guessed it—unreliable narration, of which she argues life itself is the greatest offender (by which she simply means that things happen unexpectedly). They soon have a baby on the way, with Will’s parents Irwin and Linda (Mandy Patinkin and Jean Smart) overjoyed at the prospect (Abbey’s folks are conveniently dead).

The melodramatic denouement of that segments will take us to Chapter 2, in which we’re introduced to Dylan (Olivia Cooke, with that most meaningful of names), who is celebrating (or not) her twenty-first birthday, having been raised by her grandfather. She’s a punkish, gloomy sort who argues with everybody, including the old man who clearly dotes on her.

Chapter 3 shifts to Andalusia, where the rich owner of an olive grove named Vincent Saccione (Antonio Banderas) gets involved in the domestic affairs of Javier (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), the honest, upright worker he promotes to foreman after telling him, in a long, laborious monologue, about his family history. Javier has married the lovely Isabelle (Laia Costa), and the two have a son Rodrigo (Adrian Marrero), in whom Vincent takes such an interest that it eventually causes Javier to take a decision that is frankly nonsensical—but not before he’s fulfilled the boy’s dream of visiting New York, with unfortunate consequences.

Chapter 4 shows us the grown Rodrigo (Àlex Monner) dealing with Bella’s devastating illness while going off to New York for college. There he has a brief but exuberant romance with a ditzy blonde named Shari (Isabel Durant) before breaking up with her after she plays a thoroughly grotesque joke on him, and as he walks the street afterward he comes upon a girl crying on bench. Who she is, you can probably predict. That’s followed by Chapter 5, in which we learn who the omniscient female narrator has been, and why we should care.

“Life Itself” features lot of fine actors, none of them at their best (though Banderas, oozing quiet sadness, comes closest), and an able crew, including cinematographer Brett Pawlak, who seems to have been especially happy doing the sequences in Spain, the landscapes in which he drenches in a halo of sunlight. But production designer Gerald Sullivan and costumer Melissa Toth aren’t terribly successful in using visual detail to suggest chronological change (Patinkin ages credibly, but Costa really doesn’t, even in her last scenes), and editor Julie Monroe struggles to keep Fogelman’s complex structure clear. It’s his fault, not theirs, that the elaborate cinematic house of cards winds up feeling dramatically shaky.

In the end, “Life Itself” will have its intended tear-jerking effect only on viewers who remain convinced that Forrest Gump’s observation about chocolates is an earth-shaking profundity.