They really don’t make enough submarine-set thrillers. They’re a rare breed, an incredibly small sub-genre if you will, and that’s a shame as most of them are pretty damn good. Obvious suspects like Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October sit alongside less celebrated films like U-571 and Below. A personal favorite is Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide which found real suspense and excitement in a story anchored by two powerful lead performances.
For better or worse, there’s more than a little of all five of those movies recognizable in the new film, Phantom.
Set in 1968 and based on a fairly startling true story, the movie brings to life the final mission of a decorated Russian submarine captain tasked with delivering an old diesel sub to its Chinese buyers. He’s also been instructed to add two “special project” technicians to the crew with a secret mission of their own. Once the boat hits the open ocean the newcomers take control and reveal the purpose of their presence and of the mysterious addition to the sub’s exterior.
“Engage the Phantom.”
Demi (Ed Harris) is the son of celebrated submarine captain, and while he’s had his own victories he’s always felt as if he were fighting to live up to his father’s legacy. He’s also haunted by an event from early in his career, and if that wasn’t enough for one man in charge of hundreds to deal with he’s also having visual and aural hallucinations. When Bruni (David Duchovny), the supposed technician but probable KGB agent, starts giving orders to the crew, the tired and drained Demi’s first instinct is to instruct them to go along with it. But as more information comes to light the old captain is forced into action with a decision that may or may not make Mother Russia proud.
Writer/director Todd Robinson has borrowed pieces of characters and plot points from other movies to create a film that feels a bit too familiar at times. The mystery that boards the boat with the crew is stretched out well past the point where viewers will have already guessed what Duchovny and his friend are really up to, and once everything has been revealed, Robinson’s script stops really caring about the details anyway. The film settles into a back and forth familiar to viewers of Scott’s submarine thriller but in a far less exciting way.
Robinson’s direction is stronger than his writing, and even as the script fails to generate heat, a few scenes tease an electricity thanks to the way he shoots action in the tight quarters. Although, one area where both halves of the man fail relates to the Russian language. It’s debatable as to how exactly the issue should be handled, but watching and hearing actors speak in their usual “American” English, especially someone as sarcastically monotone in his delivery as Duchovny, is distracting when they’re supposed to be Russian. Should they have accents? I’m not sure, but my vote at the very least would be to start the film with them speaking Russian before using a John McTiernan-like zoom in/out on their mouth for the switch to English.
And then there’s the ending. Oh my. The intended sentiment is clear, but it feels too abbreviated and hastened to achieve the desired effect.
While the film fails to truly excite the fault can’t be laid at the feet of the cast. Harris is unsurprisingly good as a man resigned to a life away from his wife and daughter before deciding he still has some fight left. As entertaining as Duchovny can be he’s never been mistaken for an energetic or exciting actor, but he remains an interesting one. The rest of the cast is populated with happily recognizable faces including William Fichtner, Lance Henriksen, Johnathan Schaech, Sean Patrick Flanery and Kip Pardue. They all do fine work, but it’s Fichtner who stands out due as much to the others not having much to do as it is to him just being such a fascinating actor.
The movie looks and sounds fine too with special recognition due the score by Jeff Rona that uses light string work to good and occasionally beautiful effect. There’s a smallness to the movie, but while it makes scenes feel cheap on dry land it works to its advantage in the cramped confines of the sub. It adds an extra layer of claustrophobia to the already restricted floor space on-board and heightens the tension at times.
Phantom is not a great sub movie, but at least it’s a sub movie. Watch it for the actors instead of the story, and then immediately follow it with one of the films above.
The Upside: Strong cast; interesting mystery in first half; occasionally claustrophobic atmosphere
The Downside: Early suspicions as to what’s going on are confirmed; lacks originality; lack of Russian accents or any Russian at all is disorienting at first; character motivations can be lacking; the ending is not handled well
On the Side: The end credits reveal that the film is dedicated to Tony Scott.