I've long been fascinated by people who can do perfect vocal impressions of others. While I can hear celebrities' voices in my head, I can guarantee there's zero probability I can audibly replicate them. I'm marginally better at doing a handful of foreign accents while still speaking English, although I doubt I sound authentic to those who hail from such places.
That said (pun fully intended), I did manage -- for a few days until I tired of the ruse -- to fool a number of American classmates at the beginning of my freshman year in college that I was from the town of Richmond in England rather than the city in Virginia. I'm sure it never rose above the status of caricature, something that often bedevils American actors when they try to play other nationalities (unlike many Brits, Aussies and others who convincingly manage to sound American).
All of which brings us around to the military period thriller, "Phantom." Based on a true story I'd never previously known about, it's the fictionalized account of Soviet submarine K-129 that sank on March 8, 1968 after apparently nearly starting WWIII (a text quote at the beginning states the event was even more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis years earlier).
Various theories abound as to what happened to the sub, but Kenneth Sewell (in his book "Red Star Rogue-The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine's Nuclear Strike Attempt on the U.S.") proposed that an unauthorized launch was intended to mimic an attack by a Chinese sub, thus resulting in a war between them and the U.S. It's fascinating stuff and clearly could make a terrific movie.
Alas, those pesky Russian accents -- or, more accurately, the lack thereof -- near immediately put this flick into a dive from which it constantly battles to make it back to the surface and thus soar to great heights. And then there's the fact that many other (and often far better) submarine movies have sailed the cinematic seas, including but not limited to "Gray Lady Down," "Das Boot," "U-571," "K-19: The Widowmaker" and "The Hunt for Red October."
It's that latter filmed adaptation of Tom Clancy's thriller that will draw most comparisons to this film. After all, there's a device on both Soviet subs that scrambles their sonar profile to throw off the enemy, the fact that those who control the subs are either trying to defect or start WWIII, and thus both the U.S. and Soviet forces separately want to put an end to that. There's even the Russian accent issue, although "Red October" deftly and convincingly handled that with a cool, in-scene dialogue transition.
No such attempt is made here, with writer/director Todd Robinson simply staying the course and hoping audiences don't mind. I'd also say notice, but that's impossible, especially when the very American (and American sounding) David Duchovny boards the sub as a KGB agent carrying out secretive plans. That doesn't sit well with the captain (Ed Harris) or his second-in-command (William Fichtner) and thus begins the tale of Soviet character who never feel that Russian.
To be fair, and despite the lack of novelty in terms of how such submarine films often play out, the filmmaker does manage to raise tension and suspense to decent levels at times during the film's nearly 100 minute runtime. But he's also thrown in a back-story regarding the captain's past experience with the sub (and his resultant issues) that feels shoehorned into the story, along with a twist at the end that's supposed to be poignant but isn't handled properly to make it work or pay off as intended.
In addition, and for better or worse, nearly all of the undersea action takes place inside the old, diesel-powered sub, with only a few underwater shots of other submarines and the torpedoes they fire at the old clunker. That may have been done in hopes of ratcheting up the claustrophobic suspense in our one setting or it could have been a way of keeping production costs down (by avoiding the need to build the interior of another sub) as this film was made outside of the big budget Hollywood system.
Whatever the case, it results in our protagonist-antagonist battle taking place inside the small sub. That tactic works for a bit, but contains its own limitations that ultimately rob the film of some of its potential. After all, imagine if "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (arguably the best "submarine in space" movie ever made) took place only inside the U.S.S. Enterprise and didn't involve the Reliant at all. It simply wouldn't have been the same movie.
As it stands, "Phantom" (so named for the new cloaking type device on the sub that strangely isn't utilized later in the film) is an okay military thriller. But considering the real-life story behind the tale, it could and should have been so much more. Especially if the Russian accents had been nailed. It rates as a 5 out of 10.