(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.
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.