Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/04/13 08:52:16

"There's a decent sub movie here, though its sonar trace is faint."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Many elements of "Phantom" are almost certain to remind audiences of "The Hunt for Red October", and it actually draws heavily on one of the incidents that inspired Tom Clancy's novel and the later film adaptation - or at least, the popular theories about the sinking of Soviet submarine K-129. It's not quite in "Red October"'s class, but by the time it's done, it's hit a nice little peak as a fairly decent thriller.

It opens with Dmitri (Ed Harris), a Soviet submarine captain with a revered father but a more checkered personal history being told that he and his crew will be having their scheduled shore leave cut short to staff D-23, an ancient submarine on a secret mission to test some new equipment. First officer Alex (William Fichtner) notices a few other red flags - the sailors supplementing the crew members who could not return in time have the sort of empty personnel files that indicate KGB, and members of a radical branch at that. Bruni (David Duchovny), the man in charge of this "Phantom" device, is the worst, keeping secrets close to the vest and constantly undermining Dmitri's authority.

Phantom has its problems, especially with how writer/director Todd Robinson chooses to get things started and dole out information in the beginning - there's a fair amount of speaking cryptically about things that will perhaps get explained later (and perhaps won't), bits of Soviet protocol like naval political officers that viewers who weren't born while there was still a Soviet Union may not pick up, and things that just aren't clear: Does Dmitri see what Lance Henriksen's Admiral Markov does as the D-23 sets sail, or not? The framing and cutting suggests he would, but it's not referenced. Are the scenes of Dmitri's wife and daughter supposed to be present day or flashbacks indicating he messed things up long ago? And there's a whole thing about Dmitri having hallucinations and epileptic seizures that sits there like a Chekhov's Gun only to figure into the movie very little.

The good news, then, is that eventually Robinson gets things established and in place, and it's time for the various groups to battle to either prevent or start World War III, with a side of avoiding a watery grave while they're at it. Bruni stops being a shadowy, mysterious figure, a plan is laid out that is utterly insane but also frighteningly believable, more shots are fired than is likely wise in a pressurized vessel, things have to be defused, and volleys of torpedoes are exchanged with pursuing hunter-killer subs. They're beats that military/spy thriller fans have seen a lot, but Robinson conducts them like instruments in an action-movie orchestra, doing a good job of ramping things up while seldom pushing past the point where it's hard to suspend disbelief.

A good cast will help with that. Ed Harris may not exactly be pushing himself to the limits of his thespian abilities as a tired, worn-down man who may yet have one good fight in him, but he's got authority when he needs it and when the time comes for him to lay out Dmitri's backstory warts-and-all, it's easy to believe that it rallies the crew because the audience gets caught up, too. William Fichtner similarly captures the XO that the crew easily respects, getting across impressive intelligence and capability without undermining the captain. Duchovny's tendency to be level actually serves him well - it makes Bruni's almost-casual undercutting of Dmitri seem a bit more insulting and his matter-of-fact justification of his plans seem even more sociopathic. The smaller roles are well-filled, too, whether it's Johnathon Schaech playing the political officer as timid rather than a pushy apparatchik or Jason Gray-Stanford as inevitably-pivotal regular guy Sasha.

Things are fairly well put-together, too - the bits on dry land are maybe a bit iffy, but the inside of D-23 is cramped, rusty, and worn, with analog switches and dials everywhere. Well, not as cramped as an actual sub, but that would have made filming impossible. The underwater action looks nice as well, with the credits indicating that a great deal was done with models rather than just CGI.

There are a few scenes at the end where Robinson tries to get a little clever and maybe fritters away the good work he did when sticking to basics, and I can't really argue with anyone who sees those scenes and the slow start as outweighing what I figure is a pretty solid core - especially if they don't love detail-laden military thrillers as much as I do to start with. But if you do like that sort of thing, "Phantom" does it fairly well when the time comes.

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