Wednesday, March 6, 2013

In (Empty) Theaters: PHANTOM (2013)

(US - 2013)

Written and directed by Todd Robinson.  Cast: Ed Harris, David Duchovny, William Fichtner, Lance Henriksen, Johnathon Schaech, Jason Beghe, Sean Patrick Flanery, Kip Pardue, Julian Adams, Jason Gray-Stanford, Matt Bushell, Dagmara Dominczyk.  (R, 99 mins)

About two months ago, I saw a poster for the nautical thriller PHANTOM at the theater.  Having heard nothing about the film prior to this, and noticing it was from a company (RCR Media Group) whose name I was seeing for the first time, my first thought, even with solid actors like Ed Harris and David Duchovny, was "No way this is opening in theaters."  Imagine my surprise when I got online and saw that PHANTOM was set to open on 2000 screens nationwide on March 1.  2000 screens?  How? Either this was going to be an OOGIELOVES-level box-office disaster or this mysterious RCR Media Group was one of these grass-roots Christian organizations that busses megachurch congregations to the theater and somehow Harris and Duchovny got roped into a religious submarine movie.  But it had an R rating.  What the hell was going on here?  What kind of tax loopholes do movie distributors of today have access to where production companies frequently spend anywhere from $20 million to $40 million on a movie that grosses $30,000 domestically and yet somehow still end up making money?  There's probably a great expose to be written about this (and the great German co-production tax incentive scam of a decade ago) by someone with more insider knowledge than me, but that's another story for another time.

Several days prior to March 1, the 2000 screens got bumped down to 1118, but RCR Media Group's debut feature as a theatrical distribution outfit (after years of producing DTV titles like HOSTEL III that were distributed by others) was still set to go.  And the box office take was as apocalyptically ugly as expected:  allegedly budgeted at $20 million (I don't believe that figure at all), PHANTOM grossed just $500,000, landing in 24th place and currently ranked as the seventh-worst all-time opening weekend for a wide release on more than 1000 screens.  Who knows what RCR was thinking or if this is their first and last theatrical release?  Regardless of how good or bad it was, PHANTOM was doomed to be a victim of bad marketing and limited commercial appeal (they weren't kidding around with the "You'll never see it coming" tag line).  But guess what?  It's actually a pretty good little B-movie that will probably find a much bigger audience when it inevitably turns up on Netflix Instant three months from now.  Maybe it should've debuted there in the first place.

In 2013, PHANTOM would've been a tough sell for anyone:  a Cold War submarine thriller set in 1968, centering on a crew of Soviet Naval officers played by American and Canadian actors sans affected Yakov Smirnoff accents.  This was a fairly common practice back in the old days of Hollywood (have you ever heard anyone complain about Kirk Douglas and Ralph Meeker playing French military officers in Stanley Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY?), but tends to not go over as well in the era of internet trolling and the inevitable WROST MVOIE EVER!!!111 IMDb commenters (remember all the pre-release bitching about Tom Cruise and a British supporting cast playing Germans in VALKYRIE?).  Older movies seem to get a pass for this sort of thing, and PHANTOM's story is compelling enough that you get invested in the characters and the drama and the lack of cartoonish Boris & Natasha accents is quickly forgotten.  A speculative story inspired by a 1968 incident involving a Soviet K-129 sub, PHANTOM follows aging, weary, booze-soaked Capt. Demi Zubov (Harris), who's being forced into retirement by his reluctant, emphysema-stricken commander Markov (Lance Henriksen).  But Markov first wants Zubov and his crew, headed by second-in-command Koslov (William Fichtner) to take a decrepit, old-school diesel sub out for one last mission before the Soviet military sells it to the Chinese.  Zubov's crew is joined by a few replacement officers and Bruni (Duchovny), a mysterious government projects official who's tagging along to test some prototype equipment, but soon reveals his true intentions.  A Spetsnaz commando working for a rogue faction of the KGB, Bruni and his men--surprise...the replacement officers!--are testing a top-secret cloaking device known as the Phantom, which imitates the signal and appearance of other vessels.  Bruni's plan is to launch a nuclear missile and trick a US sub into thinking it's the work of the Chinese, with the rationale being "Our two enemies can destroy each other while we sit back and watch."  Bruni seizes control of the sub from Zubov, who's haunted by both the legacy of his legendary Naval hero father and a tragic accident that happened under his command years earlier--that the Soviet military buried so as not to shame the Zubov name--and left him prone to epileptic seizures.  Zubov, who has no interest in going down in Soviet history as the man who started WWIII, rallies his crew to regain control from Bruni.

Writer-director Todd Robinson (the little-seen LONELY HEARTS) does a terrific job of conveying the tight, suffocating sense of claustrophobia in the close quarters of the ancient, rickety sub, and for about an hour, the fast-paced PHANTOM is a surprisingly effective, genuinely suspenseful nailbiter.  While the film plays like an old-fashioned Cold War drama, it starts to unravel in the last 30 minutes or so when Robinson starts making concessions to modern audiences.  When PHANTOM stays in the close confines of the sub, it works very well.  It's when it goes outside the sub with exploding torpedoes and the like that it collapses.  The CGI explosions are total amateur night and their utterly laughable, cartoonish execution takes you right out of the film.  In addition, the miniatures used in the underwater exteriors are pretty shoddy-looking, and it's in these scenes that PHANTOM starts to resemble a low-budget, HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER ripoff that Roger Corman might've had cranked out by Concorde Pictures in 1991.  Robinson also lets his script really stumble in the last third as well, with the conveniently-timed revelation that one of Zubov's crew (Sean Patrick Flanery) suffers from claustrophobia despite being a veteran of numerous missions with Zubov and it never being mentioned before.  Robinson's decision to turn the last sequence into something straight out of FIELD OF DREAMS by way of M. Night Shyamalan also does the film a huge disservice.  But despite those faults, the film gets enough right in its top-notch first hour to still warrant a recommendation.  Harris is outstanding as the tortured Zubov, Fichtner does an excellent job as the conflicted Koslov, torn between his loyalty to his longtime captain and friend Zubov and his own military ambitions, and Duchovny mostly hangs back, never raising his voice or taking the easy route of being an evil bad guy, instead doing a lot of subtle acting with his eyes and very quietly conveying a sense of increasing menace as the film proceeds.  PHANTOM isn't a submarine classic along the lines of DAS BOOT, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, CRIMSON TIDE, or RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP, but even with its third-act stumbling and bumbling, it's a diverting, suspenseful, well-acted thriller that doesn't deserve its lowly status among the biggest box-office bombs of all time.

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