is an awfully familiar journey through the Atlantic Ocean via submarine, one
that we’ve taken before in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, Tony Scott’s Crimson
Tide, and John McTiernan’s The Hunt
for Red October. But during
these previous cinematic U-boat outings, there was always something more to hold
our attention than rattled Navy crewmembers sweating it out, while their crafts
dodged depth charges and fended off torpedoes. Crimson Tide, for instance, had Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington
discussing the finer points of stallions and The Silver Surfer, as a nuclear
meltdown with Russia loomed closer. This
time around, however, predictable action scenarios are all there is to offer,
and a unique angle is missing. What you’re left with is the frustrating
spectacle of watching seasoned actors like Harvey Keitel struggle with a wooden
script, in the manner of the Nautilus getting smothered by a giant squid’s
is a period piece set in the spring of 1942, a time in which Hitler’s German
U-boats had sunken over 1,000 Allied vessels.
To foil the Nazis’ prolific team of submarines, which uses a secret
communication system called Enigma code, a squad of U.S. sailors is called upon
to capture a disabled German sub. By
capturing the craft’s Enigma transmission machine, the British and American
Allies can break this complex code and gain an offshore foothold on such enemy
activity. This scenario is
introduced during one of those uniformed officer drink ‘n dance socials that
seem to be a mainstay of any military movie.
At the party, we’re introduced to Lt. Tyler (Matthew McConaghey),
who’s sore at higher-up Lt. Comdr. Dahlgren for not recommending him as a
mission commander. Like a sluggish torpedo shot from a rusty holding chamber,
cliché number one has been deployed: the feisty, ambitious young upstart who
must test his mettle under the tides.
Tyler’s chance to prove himself materializes during the
sub-seizing mission, in which his squadron plans to disguise an American S-33
U-boat as a German vessel and masquerade as a Nazi rescue team.
Hoping that the enemy will buy their charade, the Naval group can board
the disabled craft, snag the coding gear, and make it back to their own sub
before the German boat – a U-571 - is blown to smithereens.
The strategy sounds good on paper, but things soon go awry. Considerable
suspense is evoked when a raft of the impostors makes its way through darkened
waters towards the U-571, preparing to ambush.
A young German-speaking translator nearly freezes up, when he’s called
upon to initiate conversation with the gun-toting Nazis egging them onward.
Later, after the Americans have successfully captured the craft, Tyler
and Company is alarmed to observe an enemy torpedo slamming into their original
into a foreign craft alongside some unpredictable Nazi POW’s and a faltering
engine, the Allied team spends the duration of U-571 improvising to survive. Such adaptability conjures forth
memories of Apollo 13’s group of
stranded astronauts and their ingenuous ability to patch up each impending
crisis before it could blow up in their faces. It’s a good thing that the film
focuses on action and strategy, because its characterization and
paint-by-numbers structure almost sink this latest onscreen example of grace
under pressure. There’s Lt. Pete
Emmett, for instance, played by rock star Jon Bon Jovi.
Is Bon Jovi a good actor? It’s
difficult to tell here, as he’s forced to play a character defined almost
entirely by his function as a crewmember. Only Harvey Keitel has anything
remotely approaching a full-drawn role, and his by-the-rules sea dog, Chief
Klough, is reduced to sputtering lines like, “These Krauts sure know how to
build a boat.” When Tyler must
lead the crew after a superior is blown into shark bait, his indecisive banter
with the sub-mates is fodder for big cliché number two: the younger officer
confronted by a more seasoned sea vet and told to pull himself up by his
barnacle-encrusted bootstraps. “Don’t ever let your crew suspect you don’t have the
answers,” barks Klough. “You’re the skipper now.
He always knows what to do!”
With generic banter and characters as stiff as U-571’s
steel hull, does the movie work? In
all fairness, there are some hair-raising turns, as when a German destroyer
dumps barrel after barrel of lethal depth charges that rattle the sub like
bumpers thumping a pinball. To avoid these explosive booby traps, the submarine
descends to levels that threatens to implode it into scrap metal, and the film
applies the ol’ montage trick of juggling sweaty facial reaction shots with a
descending depth gauge reading, as Tyler periodically announces, “We’re down
to 200 meters!” We’ve seen it
all before, but the countdown is still a nail-biter. There’s another stressful
scene in which a young, frightened crewmember is ordered to swim into a flooded
bilge to seal off a pipe leak. The action will allow the required pressure for
the critical launching of a torpedo, as an enemy ship rests above, unloading its
artillery onto the surfacing sub.
demonstrates that a submarine movie needs some type of inventive subtext to keep
it afloat and engaging. Crimson
Tide had the above mentioned, Quentin Tarantino-scribed dialogue to keep it
lively, while Das Boot employed the
grizzled, frantic face of Jurgen Prochnow as a harried German U-boat commander. The
Hunt for Red October had a complex, original premise and Sean Connery’s
charismatic role as a defecting Russian sub-helmer.
U-571, in comparison, comes
across as a hollowed-out shell of a movie.
It’s a bland Subway sandwich with ham and mayo only, hold the
Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's interview with Jonathan Mostow.