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Cold War sub movie ‘Phantom' barely afloat

Ed Harris buoys submarine tale

Mar. 1, 2013 - 09:08AM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 1, 2013 - 09:08AM  |  
Ed Harris stars in the film "Phantom."
Ed Harris stars in the film "Phantom." (RCR Media Group via AP)
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Rated R for violence.

Submarine movies stick in the mind for a couple of reasons.

First, of course, the list of memorable ones is not that long: "Das Boot," "Crimson Tide," "The Hunt for Red October," maybe "U-571," if you're feeling charitable.

Second, the environment is just an irresistible backdrop for tense, life-or-death tales dozens of oil-stained, sweat-soaked men in a cramped tin can with barely enough room to breathe, let alone move about freely, cruising through the frigid ocean depths, listening to the creaks, pops and groans as the mind-boggling pressure of the vast ocean puts a death grip on the hull.

And then the alarm sounds as the four words that chill a submariner's heart ring out: "Fish in the water!"

Ah, fun times.

The new submarine flick "Phantom," which has lived up to its title by flying virtually undetected below the hype radar, hits familiar notes and in fact would be a wholly pedestrian enterprise if not for the great Ed Harris as Demi Zubov, an aging submarine captain in the Soviet fleet circa 1968.

Harris, who has earned a spot on the list of all-time craggiest screen visages (a list that will be forever topped by Tommy Lee Jones), brings humanity to his character, a wily, aging sea dog who is handed one last mission before being put out to pasture.

(Trivia note: Demi's superior officer, tethered to an oxygen tank, is legendary B-movie icon Lance Henriksen, looking about 200 years old).

The boat Zubov is given seems a perfect match for its skipper: a diesel-powered rust bucket older than most of its crew. "You need an archaeologist just to start this thing," says Zubov's loyal first officer, Alex (William Fichtner).

But there's something different about this boat: A large, oddly shaped protuberance sits on the hull, a piece of prototype gear codenamed Phantom. Baby-sitting the gear are some "technicians from the Special Projects Institute" who are along for the cruise, led by the haughty Bruni (David Duchovny).

Writer-director Todd Robinson is almost too languid in getting to the point of his story ("inspired by" events surrounding a Soviet nuclear sub that mysteriously sank and was recovered from the ocean floor years later).

The oddly restrained pace offers time to explore the odd nooks and crannies of this claustrophobic environment, but eventually you get impatient for an actual story to show itself.

When it finally happens, we learn that those "technicians" are part of a radical fringe element of the KGB that wants to spark nuclear war between China and the U.S. so the Soviet Union ends up atop the resulting ash heap.

This leads to a number of back-and-forth battles for control of the boat as Zubov, Alex and their allies battle Bruni and his cabal of fanatics, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Harris gets the world-weariness of his ancient mariner just right, revealing Zubov's secrets through little grace notes that by the end add up to a complex and sympathetic character.

Duchovny is adequately effective as a square-jawed communist hammer looking to pound capitalism into dust (although this feels like a really odd project for him, truth be told).

But the narrative needs a stronger grip than Robinson can give it, and the dialogue can get hoary. ("Opinions are antithetical to a clear chain of command.")

Even so, I'd count most of the film's flaws as forgivable, right up until a final scene so maudlin and overwrought, it torpedoes whatever marginal level of credibility the film has managed to build up.

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