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Overall Rating

Awesome: 13.89%
Worth A Look: 20.83%
Pretty Bad: 4.17%
Total Crap: 13.89%

6 reviews, 36 user ratings

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K-19: The Widowmaker
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by Erik Childress

"ZZZZZZZZZZ-19: Stick With The Nazis"
3 stars

Kathryn Bigelow for years has been an overlooked and underappreciated director. Call it a bias against female directors or call it a conspiracy by ex-hubby James Cameron, but this is somebody who needs to be working more. From her cult-like beginning with what is widely considered one of the finest vampire films ever made, "Near Dark", to solid actioners "Blue Steel" and "Point Break", Bigelow has proven she has the chops to survive in the male-oriented world of hard-assed action. Unfortunately her last film, the big budget sci-fi "Strange Days" with Ralph Fiennes flopped hard at the box office and she still has a low-budget Sean Penn film ("The Weight of Water") sitting in limbo. She may not have fared too well with the guy playing the head Nazi in "Schindler’s List", so her new film appropriately features its savior, Liam Neeson, as well as one of the biggest action stars in the world, Harrison Ford. All the pieces should be in place for an exciting smash hit, if only her biggest project to date wasn’t also her flattest.

In 1961, the K-19 of the title was one of Russia’s newest submarines, so new that its rush to put her to sea made its on-the-cheap problems stick out like a sore thumb. It’s nickname, The Widowmaker, derived from its string of bad luck including five deaths from fumes and four during its construction. All this before the days leading up to its maiden voyage when the ceremonial champagne bottle neglects to shatter, the wrong drugs are delivered, the reactor chief is dismissed for drunkenness and the ship’s doctor is killed. If a black cat broke a mirror underneath a ladder on the dock, would the Russkies have finally gotten the message?

We’re cursed” is the understatement of the year spoken by one of the crew members, but enter Captain Alexi Vostrikov (Ford), one of the Russian Navy’s most respected leaders who is assigned to ship out the K-19 to conduct a missile test. Obsessed with running drills to the point of crying wolf, the officers begin to question his methods and look towards their recently replaced Captain Polenin (Neeson), now serving as the X-O. But the real-life K-19 was not known for mutiny nor a key player in military operations against the U.S., but for a tragic radiation leak which was kept silent for more than 28 years until the wall of Communism finally fell.

Now that the tale can finally be told, it doesn’t seem nearly as compelling as the countless other submarine adventures we’ve seen on screen nor the events surrounding the tragic succumbing of Russia’s Kursk vessel in 2000 where 116 soldiers were trapped and faced drowning. The first hour is everything we’ve come to expect with submarine films – the introduction of the boat & crew, the pre-voyage speech and the drill exercises. The second hour is the primary complication, at times graphically and unpleasantly portrayed (as it should be), yet still remains curiously less compelling than Spock’s big scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

The screenplay by Christopher Kyle (TV’s Homicide) and Louis Nowra (The Matchmaker) is just basic enough to move the story along and present complications when needed even if the logic, whether based in fact or not, makes one question either the reality or the characters themselves. It’s understandable that a Russian Captain during the Cold War wouldn’t want to accept help from the Americans if it meant them grabbing their boat, but what difference does it make when its flooded with radiation? You would think they would say to their enemies, “hey, have at it, knock yourselves out.” There’s little point to getting into a dick-wagging contest when yours could very well fall off.

Those concentrating on tearing apart Harrison Ford’s Russian accent in the film will likely be too busy to even notice that Liam Neeson doesn’t even try. Both acquit themselves honorably and Ford has a couple of well-played melancholy moments, but their characters standout mainly because they are Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. The rest of the cast is pretty interchangable (one of the officers has a big mustache and I remembered one guy because he looked like Anthony Michael Hall.) The only standout being Peter Saarsgaard (Boys Don't Cry)as the new fresh-out-of-the-academy reactor chief who seems confident enough but will he have the heart and mind when the radiation gets knee-deep? Since he seems to be the only one on board with a wife, I leave it to your best educated guess.

K-19 at best plays like a very slick television movie, the kind that has room to tell one specific event in one specific story and not delve much further into character, history or action. Bigelow makes the best of the cramped corners and again proves she knows how to move a camera around. It’s somewhat telling that the drill sequences are more thrilling than anything involving the hazardous materials even though it contains all the elements of rising temperatures, time limits, an edgy and uncertain headquarters and mutinous thoughts. Basically it gets reduced to crew members having a few minutes to repair the leak, they come out in ruins, rince, repeat.

For all we know this may be the most accurate portrayal of the events that occurred in 1961. No artificial action added, no souped up suspense or added characters. But if this is a straight drama and not an adventure story, than the humans better be damn interesting and sympathetic. We went underwater with the Germans in Das Boot who generated our feelings for them far more than the Russians here. (With the crew ready to abandon ship and hoping for support from the circling Americans, they participate in the largest mass mooning on screen since Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.)

As Steve Martin says in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, “not everything is an anecdote, you have to discriminate.” The submariner tales of Das Boot, The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide and even U-571 all utilized action, suspense and politics to form a complete theatrical experience, if only partially based on facts. If it took 28+ years to unlock the secrets of this story, even with a Schindler’s List-like conclusion, you would think a little more effort could have been put into the storytelling instead of selling it as yet another summertime Hollywood under-the-sea adventure tale. Audiences may be intrigued by this story and possibly even engrossed, if they don’t get too put off by the unsettling after effects of radiation exposure and I honestly hope that K-19 is a hit. That way, at least Kathryn Bigelow can get behind another project soon and get back to what she does better.

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originally posted: 07/19/02 11:32:13
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User Comments

10/05/18 morris campbell good movie nothing more 4 stars
2/21/12 hurdygurdy man This was a good movie - case closed. 4 stars
1/28/07 David Pollastrini not great, not terrible 4 stars
11/02/05 millersxing Very moving sequences depicting comaraderie forged through surviving disaster. 4 stars
5/31/05 Dan FUCKING GREAT 5 stars
4/17/05 Cary Gordon Strives for realism but sacrifices watchability at points.Das Boot, it's not. 3 stars
8/19/04 courtney love it 5 stars
6/03/04 Angel Accurate science (former Nuclear Engineer), good performances. Good script. 4 stars
12/11/03 john uninspired bore - waste of a good premise 2 stars
7/17/03 foo lin you chicken tastes nice 4 stars
12/29/02 Jack Sommersby Underrated, phenomenal adventure. Ford's perf is a career-best. 4 stars
12/27/02 Gary I wonder about the technical accuracy of the movie. Crippled reactors melt down and make 3 stars
12/22/02 Yelena Parshina The movie is about Spirit and Duty, thank God it's not about Bad guys and Good guys. 5 stars
11/23/02 Monster W. Kung Not very good. Awful score. 2 stars
11/12/02 Fonq35 The maker of this movie was clearly high on a cocktail of drugs and excessive ass-knocking 1 stars
10/20/02 Flounder Who cares if it is not the Armageddon movie that people thought it was. This movie is good 5 stars
10/01/02 Pamala Anderson it is funny 1 stars
9/27/02 Marcia Lartz Some vivid insights into cold war realities, with ending putting it in good perspective. 4 stars
8/12/02 senator blutarsky one of the summer's best movies. Ford's accent sux, but the film's good 4 stars
8/08/02 Natalia The best movie! 5 stars
8/07/02 (argue with me I dare) Horrible. The characters don't require the plot to be dynamic! 1 stars
8/06/02 KMG Pretty cool 4 stars
7/31/02 hbotis Boring and bombastic. The score swamped every frame. Total waste of Liam Neeson. 1 stars
7/26/02 titaliwink Kinda boring but grows into goodness. 4 stars
7/25/02 Human Shield This movie shows what true heroism is. I am glad to know what happened. 5 stars
7/25/02 R.W. Welch Dramatically embroidered but generally well-done account of Soviet N-Sub mishap. 4 stars
7/25/02 Landfish Great movie and really entertaining. How many secrets like this one are not told? 4 stars
7/25/02 wintermute A completely unmemorable film. In 3 weeks I will have no memory of any details. 3 stars
7/24/02 Willy I was disappointed. A somewhat depressing movie I thought. 3 stars
7/23/02 Julie Atwood Damn proud of the crew of the K-19! 5 stars
7/22/02 poetchuck Interesting 4 stars
7/21/02 Joe Doe At least the Russians dared to show the true problem unlike crap like Pearl Harbor. 5 stars
7/21/02 Lesya very brave ideas for "still cold war driven" America, every detail seems truly Russian 5 stars
7/21/02 Dinigo Aswold I expected to HATE it, but was surprisingly tense, nerve-wracking, & well-done. Excellent 5 stars
7/20/02 spaceworm A solid entry in the sub-genre. 4 stars
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  19-Jul-2002 (PG-13)



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