Did you know that we came close to WWIII in 1968? Neither did I. “Phantom” takes the disappearance of a Soviet sub in the South Pacific that year to imagine a KGB plot to start a nuclear war between the U.S. and Red China. Slap an “inspired by actual events” label on it and run with it. This movie snuck up on me. I think I saw one commercial for it. I doubt it will be a blockbuster as it seems to have been dumped in the doldrums of February.
The movie opens with a crusty, worn-out Captain Demi (Ed Harris) anticipating retirement before the cryptic admiral assigns him an old rust bucket that happens to have been his first boat. The mission is classified and mysterious. The Captain asks “do you think we can be redeemed for the things we’ve done?” Wow, he just came right out and mentioned redemption. Also, I think we can expect some back-story.
The sub takes on two KGB agents and a special gizmo welded to the deck. The lead KGB agent named Bruni (David Duchovny) has a history with Demi. More back-story coming. Capt. Demi has some demons to where I thought maybe I had walked into a horror movie. He pops pills and drinks and has frenetic flashbacks that turn out to harken back to an accident on his first cruise that resulted in numerous deaths. The incident also resulted in a brain injury that gave him epilepsy which causes fits. For some reason, Harris insisted on acting for his pay check. Commendable.
An encounter with an American sub establishes the Cold War submarine cat and mouse paradigm. They release noise makers and dive to escape. Later, they encounter a tanker and Bruni insists that Demi get close enough to scrape it. At this point the Captain is reluctantly following orders, but he soon grows suspicious of Bruni’s motives. It turns out the device is called “The Phantom” and is a type of cloaking device that mimics another ship’s sound echo.
When Bruni decides to routinely surface to report their position, Demi countermands the order and takes command of the ship by gunpoint. The crew loyal to the captain are locked up, but not monitored. You’d think the KGB would be good at monitoring. Demi figures out that the boat has gone rogue and Bruni wants to start a war. The good guys take three separate actions. The Captain rigs a distress signal to summon another warship. The exec (William Fichtner) organizes the retaking of the boat. Our newly wed officer goes off to disable the warhead.
The distress signal quickly brings a Soviet attack sub that is apparently under orders to sink them, thus proving the rogue theory. Bruni admits they are trying to start a war by firing the nuke at the U.S. fleet and making them think it came from a Chinese sub. The reason is the U.S. has just developed something called “Dark Star” (not “Star Wars”) that will shoot down all Soviet missiles and give the U.S. a first strike capability which they will use because Bruni opines “that’s what we would do”. Demi argues that America would not do such a thing because they value life. His empathy for America does not sway the hard core Commie who is bent on winning the Cold War before the Americans can. But first, there’s that pesky Soviet sub. Demi is given temporary command to save them in the duel. He does this by crippling the other sub (which strangely takes none of the countermeasures they had taken earlier).At this point the plot dissolves into age-old sub clichés (hint: rivets popping) and regular war movie cliches (wedding ring droppings), plot twists (not everyone among the loyals can be trusted), wanton violence (to prove Bruni is evil KGB), plot holes (exactly how did Bruni get the launch code?), and a shootout to make it an action movie. We’re all here today so I’m sure you can figure out the bad guys don’t win. Oh, and there is some redemption.
The movie was not as bad as I expected. I don’t think that will make much difference to the investors. There was only one other person in the theater. After what happened with “K-19”, who the Hell would green light a Soviet submarine movie? At least they didn’t waste money on accents. The acting is actually satisfactory. Harris is excellent, as usual. He brings gravitas to the role. Fichtner is a likeable second. The problem is Duchovny. There is no chemistry between him and Harris. He slums through the role. He’s no Gene Hackman to Denzel Washington (“Crimson Tide” reference). Speaking of which, this movie never seriously makes a case for Bruni’s point of view. There is no real conflict.
The set is good. The interior does look like that of an old diesel sub. This could be one of the most cramped subs in cinema. The workings of the sub seem authentic. Maybe they had a Russian technical advisor. If so, he didn’t help much with tactics. For example, the movie makes a big deal out of launching “decoy torpedoes”. I’m no expert, but I would think a decoy torpedo would be used to lure incoming torpedoes away from the sub. However, in this movie they are used to blow up the incoming ones.
The special effects are low rent. All the sub shots are in darkness and the torpedo runs are straight out of a WWII sub movie. The CGI (I assume the subs were rendered this way) are not jarring because of the darkness. The cinematography is nothing special. Typical sub stuff. Lots of closeups. Some following through the corridors. The soundtrack is unobtrusive and just used to set the mood.
In conclusion, “Phantom” is an average sub movie. I have seen much worse and much better. It was adequate entertainment and since I only invested $6.50 in it, it’s not my problem that someone was idiotic enough to produce it. As I have said before in previous “Now Showing” posts, we war movie lovers need to be thankful for whatever we get.
grade = C