[Screen It]

(2002) (Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson) (PG-13)

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Drama: Officers onboard a crippled Soviet sub square off about the proper course of action to take regarding their nuclear emergency.
It's 1961 and Russia is anxious to make a statement of deterrence to the U.S. with the introduction of their latest nuclear submarine, the K-19. Unfortunately, poor construction and supply efforts have left Captain Mikhail Polenin (LIAM NEESON) with an unfinished sub and inability to successfully complete pre-launch drills.

This forces Kremlin official Marshal Zelentstov (JOSS ACKLAND) to send revered Captain Alexei Vostrikov (HARRISON FORD) to command the K-19. This doesn't sit well with the crew or its officers including Yuri Demichev (STEVE NICOLSON) who tell Polenin that he's still their captain despite being bumped to Executive Officer.

Vostrikov immediately ruffles feathers with his stern attitude and demanding behavior that includes replacing the senior reactor officer with Vadim Radtchenko (PETER SARSGAARD), a young graduate of the nuclear training academy who's never served on a sub, but will now be working with Pavel Loktev (CHRISTIAN CAMARGO) in watching over K-19's reactors.

Despite the fact that various crewmembers now refer to the sub as the "widowmaker" - when considering that various men have already been killed before the initial launch - Vostrikov sets sail with the goal of test firing a nuclear missile. After some tense and suspenseful moments involving repeated drills, the crew is successful and then ordered to head to the American coast.

Yet, part of one of the sub's nuclear reactors then breaks, thus raising the core temperate to dangerous levels that could result in a thermonuclear explosion. With replacement Dr. Savran (DONALD SUMPTER) not being knowledgeable about how to deal with the resultant radiation burns afflicting those trying to repair the problem, and radiation levels progressively increasing inside the sub, Vostrikov and Polenin end up at odds over the proper course of action to deal with the worsening situation.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Although their sizes have increased with their abilities over the past several hundred years, submarines are still pretty limited when it comes to real estate per crewmember, especially when one considers that they're obviously submerged most of the time.

Movies about submarines have similarly increased in size, scope and budget over the years, but also remain somewhat limited. That's because there's only so much one can do with a story set in such "sardine cans." As a result, many movies of this genre exude the "been there, seen that" aura as they can't help but repeat and recycle familiar submarine elements, storylines and clichés.

Such is the case with "K-19: The Widowmaker," a handsome and decently staged if not altogether fresh or always engaging submarine flick set during the Cold War. Based on real life events that transpired in 1961 and weren't declassified until decades later, this yarn - the first produced by National Geographic's new film division - tells its tale from the Soviet side, much like "Das Boot" told its WWII era U-boat story from the "other" side.

Of course, Germans made that film, while this effort gets the American Hollywood treatment and obligatory non-Russian actors in the lead roles. While that doesn't create the cultural travesty that some might be fearing - particularly since various Russian performers do appear in supporting parts - the Russian accents occasionally leave a bit to be desired.

Yes, and not surprisingly, the Russian characters speak English, although with accents, and all of the writing curiously remains in Russian. One could write an entire essay on the reasons for Hollywood movies doing that - namely that most American stars don't speak those foreign languages and most viewers don't like reading subtitles - but as long as the storytelling is good enough, all of that eventually becomes a moot point.

Director Kathryn Bigelow ("Strange Days," "Point Break") - who works from a script by screenwriter Christopher Kyle (Bigelow's last and barely released film "The Weight of Water") - occasionally manages to deliver some taught and engaging moments. Unfortunately, a long running time, boring first act, all of the submarine movie clichés and contrivances, and an odd similarity to the classic space "submarine" movie, "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" ultimately undermine some of that and/or distract the viewer.

Clocking in at around 140 or so minutes, the film rather quickly sets its story into motion, but beyond the real-life setting, it then simply retreads past submarine movie elements. There's the claustrophobic aura and close quarters similar to that found in Wolfgang Petersen's film - courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth ("Fight Club") and production designer Karl Juliusson ("Dancer in the Dark," "Breaking the Waves") - and story elements of diving to ridiculous depths and guys showing pictures of their gals to others (which is always a bad idea in these sorts of films on the part of the soon to be doomed).

Then there's the mano a mano confrontation between the ranking officials as well as the mutinous rumblings among the crew that also occurred in "Crimson Tide" and every adaptation of "Mutiny on the Bounty."

Oddly enough, the film also bears that striking resemblance to Nicholas Meyer's far superior, second installment of the "Star Trek" movie series. Beyond the melodramatic captain, there's the opening emergency scene that obviously turns out to be just a drill (that, and the girlfriend/wife picture showing element should forever be banned from movies) as well as the "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one" theme regarding facing radioactive poisoning from repairing a busted energy reactor.

An appearance by Ricardo Montalban would have been too much, but the lack of a personified villain such as Khan does somewhat limited the dramatic possibilities here. Granted, the conflict between the two captains onboard - solidly played by Harrison Ford ("What Lies Beneath," "Air Force One") and Liam Neeson ("Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace," "The Haunting") notwithstanding the accent issue - as related to their differing interpretations of how to handle the crisis compensates for the absence of the usual villain.

In addition, Bigelow manages to get some decent mileage out of those nuke repair scenes. Yet, Ford and Neeson's characters follow too closely in the stereotypical stern and compassionate variety respectively that later development and transformations simply don't work as well as intended.

The likes of Steve Nicolson ("Falling Through," "Bravo Two Zero") and especially Peter Sarsgaard ("The Salton Sea," "Boys Don't Cry") as the new reactor officer literally and figuratively thrown into the fire are good, but this is really just a two-man show. While Kyle's script gives the leads some decent exchanges, neither the dialogue nor performances are up to snuff with Washington and Hackman in "Crimson Tide" or any number of other similar pairings and confrontations in other previous films.

For good or bad, the picture will probably remind viewers of the tragic Kursk event a while back where Russia refused outside help to rescue its downed submarine crew. While that played out in front of a live, international audience, this one remained in the dark for so long that it's hard to tell what's fictional versus factual regarding the real life events.

Decent and certainly not a terrible chore to sit through, the film offers some memorable moments - such as the crewmembers playing soccer on an ice field near their ice-encased sub - and enough action and suspense to keep viewers interested. Yet, it follows the story path of so many other submarine flicks that it never really feels as if it's propelled by its own steam, or nuclear power as the case might be. Accordingly, "K-19: The Widowmaker" rates as just a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed July 16, 2002 / Posted July 19, 2002

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