Sub Thriller Phantom Unoriginal Yet Powerfully Acted
Captain Demi (Ed Harris) is being put to pasture. Believing he has returned from sea for the final time, the Russian naval veteran is surprised when his commanding officer, a man he shares a cloudy past with, Admiral Markov (Lance Henriksen) orders he and his men back out into the ocean. They are to shepherd a pair of KGB operatives, their leader a shady man named Bruni (David Duchovny), to an undisclosed spot in the Pacific ostensibly to observe the American fleet doing maneuvers.
Ed Harris and William Fichtner in Phantom © RCR Media Group
Their real objective is much more ominous. A hardliner with a longstanding grudge against Demi, Bruni is anticipating the man to determine he is over his head and allow himself to be manipulated, his men, most notably First Officer Alex (William Fichtner), Political Officer Pavlov (Johnathon Schaech) and shipís doctor Semak (Jason Beghe) to follow his lead. But the veteran Captain isnít about to go down without fight, and he certainly isnít going to allow this crazed zealot to bring the world to the brink of damnation. No matter what happens to him or the men aboard the submarine, Bruni must be stopped.
The Cold War submarine thriller Phantom is inspired real-life crisis involving Russian submarine K-129 in 1968. It mysteriously sank, brought back to the surface decades after the fact, both Soviet and American governments keeping mum on the events that transpired that led it to a watery grave.
The movie, written and directed Todd Robinson (Lonely Hearts), takes the vaguest of facts associated with these events and crafts them into a Das Boot meets Hunt for Red October meets Crimson Tide meets K-19: The Widowmaker underwater rollercoaster ride that as handsome as it is can feel a little waterlogged. Surprises are relatively few and far between, while the outcome itself is relatively ever in doubt, and while Robinsonís use of restraint and subtlety is laudable there are times when the movie shuffles its feet in circles going nowhere.
But the movie is smart, never belittling the audienceís intelligence utilizing cheap theatrics or pointless slights of hand. While one twist isnít hidden particularly well, by and large the way Demi and his crew react to Bruniís attempted takeover is suitably heroic. These men, led by a flawed man who has made mistakes but has commanded with honor and integrity earning their admiration and respect, go above and beyond and it makes absolute sense that they do so. Their courage is contagious, and watching them a testament to sacrifice worth learning from.
Harris dominates. His performance as Demi is a master class in texture and nuance. He dives into this manís recesses milling through the muck and the mire finding a way to ease the pain and fix the hurt that is emotionally resonant. He is the reason the movie is ultimately as worthwhile as it is, and as good as Fichtner, Duchovny and others might be it is Harris and Harris alone who galvanized every ounce of my attention and kept me sitting in my seat all the way through until the end.
If only Robinsonís script showed some panache or some style, if only it didnít telegraph every moment so blatantly. More than that, it does not earn the melancholic ending it goes out on, the director hammering home the melodrama with far more force than necessary. At the same time, I have a feeling Iím going to be kinder to Phantom than most might be, more forgiving of its clichť missteps than maybe I should be. For me, the inherent power of Harrisí performance and of the scenario itself overcomes the many of the issues that I had, and by the time it hits Blu-ray it wouldnít take much prodding at all to get me to watch it again.
Film Rating: ÍÍ1/2 (out of 4)