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REVIEW

Phantom

By PIERS MARCHANT SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published March 1, 2013 at 2:46 a.m.

alex-william-fichtner-is-the-loyal-second-in-command-on-a-cold-war-era-soviet-submarine-in-todd-robinsons-phantom

Alex (William Fichtner) is the loyal second-in-command on a Cold War-era Soviet submarine in Todd Robinson’s Phantom.

— In this day and age of overstuffed action movies bloated with CGI overkill and ridiculous budgets big enough to bail out a conglomerated bank, it’s at least moderately refreshing to see an action film whose entire cost of production wouldn’t have exceeded that of a handful of episodes of a middling network TV show. Unfortunately, that particular accolade is pretty hollow: There are still plenty of drawbacks to conducting such an exercise in financial restraint, not the least of which is an inability to relay crucial parts of your story because you don’t have the budget to shoot any of them.

Writer/Director Todd Robinson has crafted a tale lifted from the still-classified annals of U.S./ Soviet relations (with enough dramatic license, one supposes, to fill an oil tanker). Apparently, some time in 1968, during the height of the Cold War, a Soviet ballistic submarine with a nuclear warhead disappeared while out on maneuvers, causing the governments of both countries to pretty much freak out. This film is a speculation, at least partially based on the documents about the incident that have recently become available, on just what occurred with the rogue sub, and what became of its crew.

When we meet Captain Demi (Ed Harris), he is receiving rushed orders for his final mission from his commander, Markov (Lance Henriksen). He is to take an old, battered sub soon to be retired from the fleet and put it through its last paces. With the briefest of goodbyes to his wife and daughter, Demi pulls his crew off of their extended shore leave, and puts them back to work.

But also mysteriously joining them on board are two members of the KGB, specifically, a particularly virulent faction of agents who foster radical ideas about what might be best for their country’s tactical survival. Shortly after putting out to sea, Bruni (David Duchovny) and his partner Garin (Derek Magyar) begin giving the captain peculiar orders that would seem to put his men in grave danger. It’s not long, of course, before the captain is overthrown altogether in favor of Bruni’s ultimate plan: the nuclear annihilation of a couple of the world’s biggest and most powerful countries, leaving the Soviets free to take over the world.

The rest of the film then becomes a race against time as the captain desperately tries to stop these infiltrators from carrying out their plan, even as enemies - Soviet and American - attempt to sink the rogue sub themselves.

There’s nothing wrong with the premise here (to appropriate the quotation of a famous arch-conservative college football coach, only three things can happen in a submarine movie and two of them are bad); the trouble comes with the execution. Given the extremely moderate budget, Robinson has to continually cut corners, not showing us critical elements and scenes, and the ultimate effect is a film that too often falls into near incoherence. At one point, the captain begins to hallucinate, at least in part due to his sickness (he has epilepsy, we find out), but like a bad ’70s Saturday morning cartoon, it mostly seems like an excuse to just roll the same footage over and over again.

Worse yet are some of the artistic choices Robinson makes in the name of simplicity.

While subtitles were out of the question for an action flick (and it also would have been at least a bit problematic to have a bunch of supposedly Russian sailors speaking heavily accented English), it’s even more confusing to have them speak in perfect American English. If not for the generous shots of Stoli they drink to each other’s health, the opening scene between Captain Demi and Commander Markov at a Russian Naval base could just as easily have been between a grizzled couple of U.S. Navy veterans in San Diego.

The production values also seem highly compromised: The setting of a Russian Orthodox church before the ship pulls out is like something out of a telenovela, all clean and unlived-in. The submarine, while appreciably grimy, never conveys the repellent, claustrophobic quality inherent in the genre. Each element works against the conviction and believability of the film (not that the script helps, with its insistence on lines like “Do you think we can be redeemed for the things we’ve done?”), and the result has a cheap, made-for-cable-TV effect, like a particularly well-cast movie you could find on the Spike channel (or, set in space instead of the Atlantic, Syfy).

Not all submarine-based TV shows are bad, mind you. After all, the granddaddy of the genre, Wolfgang Petersen’s brilliant Das Boot, was later expanded into a German miniseries. But whereas Petersen used his limited resources to craft something so realistic you could feel the grimy sheen of sweat and terror of the crew members on your own faces, all Robinson can muster is a continued fascination with Ed Harris’ noble cheekbones. I well understand the idea of budgetary restriction, but couldn’t the producers have at least saved enough to pay for some Russian accents?

Phantom 73 Cast: Ed Harris, David Duchovny, William Fichtner, Lance Henriksen, Johnathon Schaech, Sean Patrick Flannery Director: Todd Robinson Rating: R, for violence Running time: 98 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 03/01/2013

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