With Ed Harris, William Fichtner, Lance Henriksen, Julian Adams, David Duchovny. Written and directed by Todd Robinson. Rated R for violence. 91 minutes.
There must be a checklist that filmmakers are issued when they make movies set in submarines. You need the scene where they worry about being detected by the enemy. There’s the scene where the crew braces itself for the impact of an attack. And, inevitably, there’s the scene where they go lower than is safe and bolts start to go flying and seams start to leak. It would all be very suspenseful but for the fact that these same bits are in every other submarine movie ever made.
PHANTOM does have the advantage of an interesting story based on an incident in the 1960s where a Soviet sub disappeared. What we see on screen is speculation possibly bordering on complete fabrication, but it’s an engaging premise nonetheless. Demi (Ed Harris) is a commander about to be retired who is sent out on one more mission. Along with his regular crew there are several additions, notably Bruni (David Duchovny), a KGB operative being very quiet as to his actual mission.
Demi has a history and, as we discover, it’s not one enshrined in glory. We get a sense early on that he is being set up, especially when his own commander (Lance Henriksen) greets his departure with a desperate act. What Demi relies upon is the loyalty of his own men, particularly Alex (William Fichtner), his second in command. These are practical, professional men who get the job done and don’t take any foolish risks.
Bruni and his operatives are wild cards. At first we see they are testing a new stealth technology that will give the Russians superiority over the Americans. Soon, however, we realize that Bruni represents a rogue element within the KGB with its own agenda, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to see that he accomplishes his goals.
In one sense, this is a very old-fashioned film, not only in hitting all the submarine clichés but in telling a story of professional men seeking the satisfaction of a job well done rather than having grandiose and self-serving goals. They are well aware of the capabilities – and limitations – of the Soviet naval force. Duchovny, cast against type, is the heavy, who puts his own agenda over that of his superiors, and who dismisses the rule of commanding officers and politicians as lacking the vision he possesses.
The result is a taut thriller that succeeds in spite of playing out the expected scenes of the “sub” genre. In just over 90 minutes we get vivid depictions of loyalty and betrayal, and what it means to be a man who does his job with quiet authority instead of a hunger for glory. The film falters only at the very end where – not to spoil anything – it invokes a fanciful confrontation that is both confusing and impossible. For some reason the filmmakers had the mistaken belief that this realistic film needed fantasy to resolve its issues. It was an unfortunate choice.
That aside, there are some solid performances in “Phantom,” particularly Harris, Fichtner, and Duchovny, all of whom avoid the potential melodrama to focus on men pursuing their goals. Since they are working at cross-purposes, they obviously can’t all succeed, leading to the conflict and the eventual showdown. A half century ago this might have been on the bottom half of a double feature and deemed quite satisfying. As a standalone, it mostly works but one would be hard-pressed to call it a “major motion picture.”•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.