It used to be that Hollywood knew a thing or two about producing some outstanding, patriotic military thrillers. I’m not talking about the drum-beating variety; rather, I’m talking about stories that focused on characters with a commitment to whatever country they served, and these characters would then be allowed to carry out their mission at whatever the cost. That’s the stuff audiences typically embrace – not these veiled anti-war, anti-American, anti-decency dramatic potboilers. If you’d told me twenty years ago that I’d have to watch a film about a Soviet submarine captain who does what’s necessary to save all of humanity in order to have that thirst for solid military drama sated, then I would’ve told you to drop down and give me twenty.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
In the late 60’s, a battle-tested Soviet submarine captain nearing the end of his career, Demi (played by the reliable Ed Harris) returns to base only to find out he’s been assigned to command a relic: an old diesel sub is on the verge of being retired and sold to the Chinese for their new navy. His senior officer thinks it apropos that Demi – who first captained the sub – see it through on its last mission, and, a consummate professional, he agrees. However, once they’re out to see, Demi finds his authority usurped a KGB officer, Bruni (David Duchovny), who’s intent on using the ship to test a new naval weapon known only as ‘Phantom.’ Once it becomes clear that Bruni is privately committed to launching a nuclear warhead at the US’s Pacific Fleet, Demi fights his own personal demons on his bid to retake the sub with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.
PHANTOM is a smartly written and expertly directed project (credit Todd Robinson for both) that’s entirely based on true events. In fact, the Soviet sub that went down in the late 60’s has been raised and recovered, but, until this day, both the Russian government and the U.S. protect its records at the highest level of classification. As I said in my opening, I’m a sucker for a good, patriotic actioner – regardless of who is calling the shots – and this one was pretty spectacular.
At the center of it all is some exceptional photography with sets depicting diesel sub interiors of the era. Everything is tightly shot by design, and the lighting and period detail only adds to the visual drama. Furthermore, the production is held up on Harris’s capable shoulders; he plays the captain with tremendous reserve (until fisticuffs become necessary), and that’s because the script brilliant shackles the character with some personal baggage that takes the shape of some very dark secrets. He’s also suffering from a physical condition – one that he’s kept from those closest to him – that plays heavily into the second half.
To add to the expertise, Robinson brought in a stable of familiar and highly-skilled actors to add even more gravitas to the project. The exceptional William Fichtner plays Alex, the sub’s executive officer. Lance Henriksen appears briefly as Admiral Markov – the officer who tasks Demi with this mission (and them suffers his own dark comeuppance). Johnathon Schaech – while shackled under a mustache honestly too thick for his face – also serves under Harris’s captain, and Jason Beghe as Semak earns stripes as the ship’s doctor. A personal long-time favorite of mine since his stint as Indiana Jones on television, Sean Patrick Flanery shows up as weapon’s expert Tyrtov.
If PHANTOM has any failings, I’d have to point my finger at its uncharacteristically schmaltzy ending, which sacrifices the gritty reality of the first 90 minutes for a saccharin and sappy closing scene that serves no real purpose other than to bring in a few, fresh faces to cleanse the palate of all the film’s sweaty manliness. It was entirely unnecessary – I’m not sure what Robinson was thinking when he wrote it – and it could’ve been played several different ways that wouldn’t have pitched reality out the window in favor of a few minutes of benign fantasy. That, and maybe -- just maybe -- I would've gone a different direction than cast Duchovny as a villain; he's a bit too fresh-faced to pull it off here, though he doesn't hamper the picture's effectiveness in the slightest.
I remember when this played theatrically, the critics pretty much gave it a drubbing. I couldn't say why except to point out that -- for reasons I've never understand -- critics rarely take kindly to acts of pure patriotism, the type at the heart of this story. Me? I liked it just fine.
PHANTOM is produced by RCR Media Group, Trilogy Entertainment Group, and Solar Filmworks. DVD distribution is being handled through 20th Century Fox. As for the technical specifications, I’m willing to guess no expense was spared in bringing this tale of seasoned bravery to life; it’s filled with constantly claustrophic cinematography aboard a Soviet diesel submarine, and it looks marvelous. (Having toured two Cold War subs similar to the sets used in this film, I thought it extremely accurate in its depictions.) Lastly, the Blu-ray package offers up the real deal: along with the film there’s a digital copy that you can watch anywhere; three production shorts; a music video; and an audio commentary. Bravo to all involved for pitching in with some impressive extras!
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Before Hollywood went all political with its military thrillers, it served up classic-style heroes – old soldiers, old captain, old warriors – who knew a thing or two about facing the odds and saving the world. Despite a curiously sentimental, fantastical ending, PHANTOM remains a tautly plotted motion picture are big men facing bigger odds. Based on true events (and probably a fair amount of screenwriter tinkering), the story focuses in on a battle of wills between an aging relic of Soviet supremacy (Ed Harris) and a KGB operative (David Duchovny) who’ll stop at nothing to set the world on a path to global apocalypse. It’d be easy to quip some of the minor details, but PHANTOM is man’s entertainment, and there ain’t no bones about that.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at RCR Media Group and 20th Century Fox provided me with a DVD copy of PHANTOM by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.