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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 MP Bartley

"Solid, with flashes of inspiration."
3 stars

Here's one of those mini-genre's that never seems to go away: the submarine crisis movie. From the 50's right through to the 90's the subs have appealed to filmmakers and audiences seeking claustrophobic thrills, groaning noises of metal warping and groups of sweaty men clinging to pipes looking very nervous. And like every genre it has it's classics, Das Boot, through to its stinkers, U-571. K-19, Kathryn Bigelow's latest falls between the two.

Set at the height of the Cold War,K-19 is the name of the Russian armies most valued submarine. 'Widowmaker' is the more unfortunate name given to it by it's sceptical crew. Ten people have died prepping it, the sub's doctor is run over and killed just before they set off meaning they have to recruit the base doctor who suffers from sea-sickness, they have the wrong drugs and protective suits onboard and on the last night before they set off the champagne bottle used to christen the sub doesn't break (a bad omen for all you unknowing landlubbers). Oh yeah and the nuclear core powering the sub is about as stable as Winona Ryder in the January sales. Short of Rob Schneider providing the onboard entertainment, there's not a hell of a lot more that could go wrong.

Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) knows this and rightly complains, meaning he is placed under the supervision of Captain Vrostokov (Harrison Ford), your typical Russian submarine commander. Stolid, imposing, he's as craggy as a Russian granite pit and puts the crew and the sub itself under immense pressure.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that it's all going to turn pear shaped, especially if you know it's based on actual events. Kept secret for 28 years the truth behind K-19 is that the nuclear core went into meltdown, threatening not only the Russian crew but also an American destroyer keeping watch nearby, thereby triggering of World War 3.

As unknown historical stories go it's a goodie so it's a shame that it just never grips like it should do. There are several reasons for this. Bigelow's direction too often falls into cliche. It's pretty much impossible to make a submarine seem original - seen one cramped interior, seen them all - but there is rarely anything here that does seem new. The old hands onboard reacting to their new commanding officer with suspicion, the new recruits pining for their sweethearts that you just know are going to come to grief, the clash between Captain and his second-in-command...It's like 'Crimson Tide' but three decades earlier.

The cast rarely make an effort either. Of the two leads Neeson comes off best, actually making an effort with his accent and striking the right notes in his frequent clashes with Vostrokov. But Ford? It makes you wonder why he does it. He's rich beyond most peoples belief, he's dating a women about 30 years younger, surely he could afford to stretch himself. Vostrokov could be a part to stretch him but he delivers his lines like he's just seen them on an autocue and in a half arsed accent. I couldn't remember Ford blinking in this, let alone raising his voice above an unimpressed murmur.

Ironically it's the unknowns that come off best. No Hollywood pretty-boys here, just a group of suitably grimy and thin young men who actually look like a submarine crew, unlike Ford.

Ford can't take all the blame for his characters shortcomings however, with such a sparse script. I can't recall even one line of dialogue that was sparky or gave the story a bit more life. A backstory concerning Vostrokov's father who was both disgraced and a military hero is unfortunately brushed over swiftly.

But despite all the bashing, I'd still give 'K-19' a (cautious) recommendation. For despite the shortcomings in script and characters, once the core goes into meltdown it manages to grip totally as a story. Resorting to sending men into the reactor room in two's to mend the core, 'K-19' becomes just as enthralling in this section as any other submarine flick has been. And the effects on the crew of the maintenance work, is a nasty turn of events. How much of this excitement is down to the factual events or to Bigelow's handling of them is debatable, but for a film that's previously been slow, it surges ahead at this point.

This momentum then manages to carry the movie for most of its remaining running time. Things get worse onboard the sub from here on in and the growing sense of panic is infectious. Also, the relationship between Vostrokov and Polenin also deepens and a mutiny plan keep things ticking over nicely. And you've got to admire an American film depicting Russian sailors that doesn't demonise them. There's no villains here or incompetents, just sailors ina horrendous situation doing their damn hardest to get out of the situation. It treats them with a quiet and sincere dignity which is refreshing.

But I did say for most of its running time. For just when I thought it had reached its natural end and I was ready to give it a surprisingly good four stars, Bigelow tacks on a totally unnecessary and ineffective epilogue. It's maudlin when the rest of the movie has managed to avoid this, and at it's worst laughable. This botched job unfortunately drags it down a star and reminds you of how it struggled to get above the average. Shame.

So an uninspiring beginning and a risible end might be the remaining moments in peoples minds as the leave the cinema. Which is a shame, because the middle sequence, like the nuclear core, deserves to have better parts attatched. With some trimming and more energy into the acting and dialogue we could have been looking at a classic. Instead we have a miscast Ford in what may be simply become a curio or a flop in his back catalogue, instead of a flawed, but decent, submarine flick.

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originally posted: 11/02/02 03:30:22
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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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