Filmmakers have always seemed drawn to dramas set on board submarines. For whatever reasons, the tradition has provided rich cinematic fare: Run Silent Run Deep, Das Boot, The Hunt for Red October and many others. The new thriller Phantom lands about in the middle of this noted heritage.
Like many of its predecessors, Phantom unfolds like a stage play. We’re brought into its cramped setting. The emphasis is on dialogue and concentrated characterization with ample personality clashes. And, like a good drama, the film builds in intensity, even if it hits a few bumps along the way.
Todd Robinson directs a story — which comes with that tiresome note “inspired by true events,” no less — from his own script. Robinson tries to squeeze drama from forgotten events, casting Yankee men in fuzzy hats to play a crew of Soviet officers and sailors aboard a 1968 ballistic missile submarine.
Ed Harris plays Demi, a captain nearing retirement with various ailments and addictions who also bears the burden of being the son of a distinguished naval officer. William Fichtner is Alex, the first officer, dedicated and loyal to his captain. Despite their protests, they must leave their short-term shore leave to take over what seems a rickety old sub, one destined more for the scrap heap than for heroics.
Shortly before departure, they are joined by two officious KGB agents. Soon after, Bruni (David Duchovny) asserts authority over Demi, slowly revealing his dangerous plan to use the new Soviet “phantom” device to disguise submarine activities so that he can start a nuclear war between the U.S. and China.
As Demi finds himself between duty to fatherland and the moral duty to avert world chaos, the plot breaks down into separate dramas. One is about the loyalty of the crew. Another is about whether a bomb can be detonated, and yet another drama surrounds the question of whether another ship can monitor them.
The conflicts serve the narrative well, even if they seem too familiar and leaden with
techno-jargon and trite dialogue. (“Sometimes a man has to pick a side.”)
Robinson paces his film judiciously, letting the personalities develop in the early part only to clash later. His pace bogs down in submarine minutiae before ratcheting up the action down the stretch.
In other words, Phantom qualifies as an entertaining, passable submarine saga.
Rated R, 97 minutes.