(director/writer: Jonathan Mostow; screenwriters: Sean Montgomery/David Ayer; cinematographer: Oliver Wood; editor: Wayne Wahrman; cast: Matthew McConaughey (Lt. Andrew Tyler), Bill Paxton (Captain Dahlgren), Harvey Keitel (Chief Klough), Jake Weber (Lt. Hirsch), Jon Bon Jovi (Lt. Pete Emmett), David Keith (Marine Major Coonan), Erik Palladino (Mazzola), T.C. Carson (Eddie), Jack Noseworthy (Wentz), Thomas Guiry (Trigger), Thomas Kretschmann (Wassner), Matthew Settle (Larson), Dave Power (Tank), Will Estes (Rabbit), Derk Cheetwood (Griggs); Runtime: 115; Universal Pictures; 2000)

“There are no jokes, even though it could have used some to lighten its torpedo load.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An old-fashioned WW11 submarine movie, featuring an all-male cast, played with a square jawed military call for patriotism. There are no jokes, even though it could have used some to lighten its torpedo load. Every move made is seemingly life threatening, whether on a personal basis or because of the action scenes. This film is as sober-minded as some of the classical films of this genre–such as Run Silent, Run Deep; but this is no Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (81), the best submarine film ever made thus far. But, it is as thrilling and as contrived as the recent big-budgeted Crimson Tide. This makes for a fairly entertaining but vacuous film, whose entertainment value I estimate to be in the middle-range of this genre. If you get your sea legs under you and don’t mind history being blurred and the film’s need of making heroes out of the men at all costs, then you should find it to be a good special effect film and not be underwhelmed by its clichés and its technical inaccuracies. Observers with submarine technical knowledge have noted one major technical flaw in the pic: You can’t start a diesel engine in a submerged submarine, which is what happened in the climactic scene.

The film is set in the spring of 1942, when German U-boats in the North Atlantic and along the East Coast of the U.S. were targeting allied shipping. An allied vessel is downed by the Germans as the film opens with the bad guys at first exhilarated by their hit but taken aback when attacked by the depth charges hitting their boat, causing severe damage. English subtitles appear for the first ten minutes or so as the Germans in distress speak only German, scurrying around in their claustrophobic confines, trying to repair their almost unfixable boat. The next move they make is to radio Berlin and get a boat to resupply them.

The scene switches to the American sailors who are on shore leave, celebrating with a big bash. Andy Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) is the second-in-command and is saddened, he has just received the news that he was passed over for captain. His hard-nosed commanding officer Dahlgren (Bill Paxton) refuses to recommend him for promotion as he doesn’t believe Tyler has the right stuff to lead the men, that he won’t be able to make the hard decisions that are necessary without feeling sorry for them. The stern-looking Andy contrary to his appearance, is just too friendly with the crew. He is told that his time hasn’t come yet. Predictably, you can figure out where the film is going with this formulaic subplot.

Shore leave is suddenly canceled and this gives the film an opportunity to introduce some of the standard stock characters always found in films like this: the main supporting actor is a loyal old-timer, Chief Klough (Keitel), who can’t wait for some action. He will mentor the many green sailors who are anxious about their first battle experience.

The men standing in the rain by the dock watching their submarine being equipped anew are about to find out that they are going out to sea disguised as a German supply ship to rendezvous with the stranded German U-boat and take from it an Enigma code machine (a classified-secret encoding device resembling a typewriter). The mission calls for them to get onboard and steal the Enigma machine without the enemy knowing it is missing. This machine is so important that it is more valued than their lives — it can shorten the war once gotten undetected into allied hands. The machine allows the Germans to relay positions of Allied shipping on the Atlantic. This fictionalized version varies greatly from the historical records where the British actually carried out this assignment in 1941, a year before America was to enter the war. This one episode is an amalgam of several such episodes. In actuality, the British Navy’s HMS Bulldog grabbed the Enigma from a German U-boat while a Station X in the English countryside performed the decoding. This matter is detailed in Robert Harris’ novel Enigma.

The most action-packed scene comes about in the dark and in the rain at the rendezvous, as the Americans and the Germans on the U-boat go at it. The action is tense but hard to see what’s clearly taking place, as each side looks like the other in the dark. As an added kicker, the American ship is blown up by the German supply ship coming on the scene earlier than expected. This causes most of the sailors we just met, such as the Bon Jovi character and the marine major (Keith) who trained them, to be killed off. We are left with a handful of American survivors retreating to the compromised German submarine, who will have to battle it out with the powerful German boat standing in its way. Andy will be in charge when the captain is killed, but Andy will have the chief and his years of experience to counsel him, if necessary. The chief will give him his unswerving support and the men will respect him only when he proves himself capable in combat as a leader. We are on familiar formulaic territory with one more bit of melodrama added to the suspense, if Andy fails to succeed he can’t let his men live. The reason being, is that the Germans must not know that their secret coding system has been stolen.

The film has almost every expected submarine battle scene ever presented take place in its 115 minutes. It is directed with an emphasis on sustaining suspense, building on the action scenes, and letting go full force with its special effects. To its downside, character development is the first casuality in this war film–it simply is not a top-priority of the director for this nut-and-bolts actioner. The same could be said for dialogue, which consists mainly of drab submarine lingo.

Matthew McConaughey must carry this film and he does so as a tight-lipped career Navy man, who becomes the Man under trying circumstances. It’s a change of pace from a lot of the current war films and a throwback to those old WW11 no-nonsense war films with, perhaps, a new audience ready to take that leap back in time… . I prefer to go forward.