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Friday, March 2, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hit And A Miss -- `Red October' Is Slick And Tense But Falls Short

XXX ``The Hunt For Red October,'' with Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Sam Neill. Directed by John McTiernan, from a script by Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart. Cinerama (in 70mm), Alderwood, Crossroads, John Danz, Kent, Northgate, Seatac Mall, Southcenter, Totem Lake Cinemas. ``PG'' - Parental guidance advised, due to language, violence.

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An exciting techno-suspense thriller with a hollow center, ``The Hunt For Red October'' is shaping up as the first major-studio blockbuster of the 1990s.

Box-office lines will no doubt be formidable wherever it opens today - especially at the Cinerama, which is presenting the $40 million movie's spectacular underwater visual/aural effects in 70-millimeter and six-track stereo sound.

Fans of Tom Clancy's 1984 best-seller are likely to be pleased with the production's slickness and tension but, after the movie's over, baffled by the content. The script, written by Larry Ferguson (``The Presidio'') and Donald Stewart (``Missing''), isn't as coherent as the book.

Most of the narrative problems stem from trying faithfully to re-create what hooked readers and sold nearly 5 million copies in 1984, while steering away from the doomsday climate that produced such early-1980s movies about nuclear catastrophes as ``WarGames,'' ``Testament,'' ``Special Bulletin'' and ``The Day After.'' The filmmakers are self-consciously aware that the Cold War has thawed, and they've hammed up and softened the original's ending.

Trouble is, they can't have it both ways. This remains a Cold War thriller, in which the threat of Soviet nuclear devastation of the United States remains the chief narrative driving force.

It's still the story of a veteran Soviet captain who takes his nuclear submarine with him when he attempts to defect to the U.S. And it's still the story of wary U.S. Navy men and intelligence agents trying to understand what he's doing and why he's doing it, without provoking him or the Soviet ships on his trail into starting World War III.

Moviegoers who haven't read the book may still be in the dark by the time this 2 1/2-hour production is over. The most baffling omission is the motivation for the captain's action. In the book, he defects to avenge himself on the inept Soviet medical system. It was responsible for his wife's death at the hands of a drunken surgeon, who botched the woman's appendicitis operation and then used unreliable Soviet pharmaceuticals in an attempt to revive her.

The wife's death is pointedly referred to in the movie - it's the clue that tells the Americans that the captain is planning to defect rather than attack the U.S. - but just why the Americans should understand this is never explained. It may be that a follow-up scene was written and even filmed, but trimmed when length became a problem.

It's a tradition when these kinds of movies are edited to cut character details before trimming action scenes. But failing to include this particular detail robs the star, Sean Connery, of both his character's tragic, Captain Nemo-like stature, and the audience's sympathy. When the captain cold-bloodedly kills the submarine's political officer, you don't understand why he feels he has to take such drastic action. It doesn't help that another officer explains that it's no loss because the man was a pig.

What's surprising about ``The Hunt for Red October'' is that most of it works anyway. The director, John McTiernan, proved with ``Die Hard'' that he's a master at creating large-scale suspense films, and once more he keeps the action clear and thrilling.

The Navy cooperated in the filming, hoping for another ``Top Gun''-style recruiting vehicle, and the mixture of full-scale submarine footage and miniature special effects is seamless. Dutch cameraman Jan De Bont's cinematography makes the underwater action as exciting as the space battles in ``Star Wars,'' and Basil Poledouris' underlines the action without overwhelming it.

As he did with Bruce Willis in ``Die Hard,'' McTiernan plays up the strong points of his male stars, especially Alec Baldwin and Scott Glenn, and he makes their big and small moments count.

Baldwin has made an impression in a series of supporting and near-starring roles lately (``Beetlejuice,'' ``Married to the Mob''), but this part, as the bright CIA analyst who is always one step ahead of Connery, is the first to tap into his leading-man potential. Glenn finds plenty of stoic humor in his role as the poker-faced, risk-taking captain of the sub that Baldwin boards, and Sam Neill sidesteps most of the sap in his predictable role as the second-rank officer on Connery's sub.

Connery doesn't have enough to do, partly because the book's emphasis on his character is now gone. But he does a professional job, occasionally filling in the blanks in the script with a glance or a raised eyebrow, and nearly pulling off the reworked ending.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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