There should be more submarine movies. They provide a no-brainer formula for success: claustrophobic setting, invisible enemy whose approach must be estimated, inherent threat of drowning and depth pressure, and from a budgetary standpoint, one key set is really all that's needed. There's even a solid track record to draw on: With a few minor exceptions (anyone remember Kelsey Grammer in Down Periscope? Didn't think so), submarine movies from the big studios have been solid entertainment at the very least, whether big and blustery (Crimson Tide), intricately plotted (The Hunt for Red October), or even transposed to a sci-fi setting (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). And then there's always the classic by which all are measured: Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot, a film that's loaded with action, suspense, human drama, and a solid antiwar message. Perhaps that's part of the problem, though; who wants to rise to the challenge of making a movie that'll automatically be measured against such giants? Answer: Jonathan Mostow, writer and director of the recent Kurt Russell actioner Breakdown. Give the guy credit for having the balls to try to make a Das Boot of his own. Then give him a hand: U-571 is not bad at all.
Comparisons to Petersen's epic are inevitable. The setting is World War II. We open on board a German U-boat captained by a bearded fellow who looks not unlike Jurgen Prochnow (who starred in Das Boot). For a good 10 minutes, the only onscreen dialogue is German with English subtitles, as this Nazi submarine comes under attack. To ensure that we don't sympathize too much with the enemy, however, there's an obligatory "let's slaughter some civilians" scene before the sub is left dead in the water, awaiting aid that may not come.
Focus now on the good guys. The dialogue here is in English, but comparisons to Das Boot don't end, as we meet our heroes at a party during shore leave, same as in Petersen's film. The key internal conflict is quickly and broadly sketched: Second-in-command Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) wants to be a captain, but his commanding officer Dahlgren (Bill Paxton) refuses to recommend him for promotion, as he doesn't believe Tyler has what it takes to send a crewman to his death if need be. (Guess what'll happen before the movie's over?) Soon, shore leave is canceled, the men are standing outside on the docks in the rain as welders touch up the submarine (a standard scene in these kinds of movies, but almost always impressive nonetheless), and Tyler is being briefed on the nature of the mission: rendezvous with the crippled German sub while masquerading as a supply ship. They must maintain the charade long enough to get on board and steal an Enigma machine -- a top-secret encoding device vaguely resembling a typewriter -- then get it back without allowing the enemy to know that it's been taken. (The story is an amalgam of several real events, as the end titles make clear; the capture of a similar device really was one of the major turning points of the war.)
Well, we've seen enough movies to know that the best-laid plans of military men seldom work out smoothly. Sure enough, the German relief sub arrives sooner than expected and blows the American vessel all to hell. It is at this point that U-571 clearly comes into its own: With captain Dahlgren out of commission, Tyler must take command of the crippled German U-boat and maneuver it into Allied territory. He can't call for help on the radio, because the Germans must not be allowed to have any idea that their encoding system has fallen into enemy hands. And they can't allow themselves to be captured, either. As Chief (Harvey Keitel) chillingly informs Tyler, the men have information on U.S. submarines that the Germans would easily torture out of them. So if Tyler fails in his mission, he has to ensure that none of the men survive to be taken prisoner.
U-571 has significantly improved upon Das Boot in the one area where the latter was vulnerable: special effects. Even the recently restored, digitally enhanced director's cut is no match for Universal's in-your-face onslaught. HEAR the breakers crash against the hull. SEE the submarine painstakingly navigate through a sea of slowly falling depth charges. FEEL the craft submerge, augmented with exterior POV shots and bubbles loudly popping. There is one fake-looking computer-enhanced explosion that could've used a few weeks' more work, but other than that, you will feel like you're in the midst of battle.
The acting is seldom less than adequate. Save for McConaughey and Keitel, most of the name actors are killed early on, leaving us with a bunch of fresh-faced newcomers, an effect that adds to the realism of the piece but makes it difficult to latch on to anybody, since their faces are nondescript and their characters aren't clearly distinguished. However, if you're worried because Jon Bon Jovi's name appears on the poster, don't be. By the time you figure out it's him, he's already dead.
It's McConaughey's movie to carry, and while he may seem lightweight at first, he rises to the challenge, taking Tyler from "trademarked McConaughey pretty boy" (A Time to Kill) all the way up to the edge of "trademarked McConaughey bug-eyed psycho" (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation). It has been remarked upon before, but McConaughey really is like a more leading-man-ready version of Woody Harrelson. That his performance here is never played for laughs is a testament to that fact. Keitel doesn't look quite right in his role, but after a while that doesn't matter much. He's Harvey Keitel, after all.
Mostow's direction throughout is solid, and he proves very adept at creating tension. He only falters a little during the scene in which the Americans first take control of the German submarine. Combine the fast editing with a whole bunch of men wearing more or less the same thing in the driving rain, and the presence of a cast of mainly generic faces, and it adds up to a whole mess of confusion. Maybe that was the intent, but it would be more satisfying to be able to follow the characters through the conflict with greater ease. One character appeared to me to be shot and killed on three different occasions, only to show up without wounds afterward. Eliminating the driving rain might have clarified things. I know it's dramatic and all that, but leave the climactic downpours to Tony Scott next time.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.