2000, PG-13, 124 min. Directed by Jonathan Mostow. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, Jon Bon Jovi, Jake Weber, Matthew Settle, Erik Palladino, David Keith, Thomas Kretschmann.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 21, 2000
The most exciting, visceral submarine sequence I've yet to see in a motion picure to this day remains the opening 10 minutes of James Cameron's The Abyss. Cameron's underrated underwater adventure flick eventually bogs down into a hokey E.T. love fest, but those first few scenes of the American nuclear sub running afoul of an unknown quarry and capsizing alongside an abyssal wall are stunningly well-crafted cinema. The most realistic and harrowing sub film -- no contest here -- remains Wolfgang Peterson's celebrated Das Boot, the U-Boat film to end all U-Boat films, and a heady anti-war piece to boot. U-571 falls somewhere in between, neither as cracklingly fine a slab of testosterone entertainment as Cameron's nor as sickeningly gritty as Peterson's. It's pure Hollywood all the way, from the casting on down (Jon Bon Jovi?!), a throwback to the glory days of Robert Wise's Run Silent Run Deep, a slickly crafted bit of work with few shades of gray and plenty of bad Nazis getting their just deserts. The film is so slick, in fact, that Mostow (who also penned the white-knuckle script) seems to have abandoned any notion of character development along the way, substituing instead thrill upon submariner thrill. For a color film, it's a very black-and-white movie: Following an opening explanation of the film's setting -- April, 1942, with German U-Boats severing the Atlantic supply lines to an embattled Britain -- we get to see just how dirty the Nazis play: after torpedoing a British transport, a U-Boat surfaces and uses their deck-mounted machine guns to slaughter the survivors. “The Führer's standing orders,” says the captain. Moments later, the U-Boat is scuttled by an American destroyer and forced to drift homeward, set to rendezvous with the floating National Socialist version of Mr. Fix-It. Meanwhile, back on the home front, Navy Lt. Andrew Tyler (McConaughey), recently passed over for his own Captain's slot, is commissioned by Special Ops spook Marine Major Coonan (Keith) to head a crew -- alongside Paxton's Lt. Commander Mike Dahlgren -- in a WWI-era U.S. sub specially retrofitted to resemble a current-vintage U-Boat. The Trojan-horse mission, to meet up the injured Nazi sub and steal their uncrackable Enigma encryption system, is a success until the enemy repair boat shows up ahead of schedule and sinks the Yanks' ride home, leaving them stranded aboard the injured Nazi craft with one functioning torpedo bay and a shipful of undecipherable German equipment. U-571's plot moves like a rocket, never pausing for breath, and this works to a point, but certain events (what happens to Keith's Major Coonan, for example) are glossed over in favor of more (exceptionally well-done) shots of exploding depth charges and topside battles. McConaughey, with his flattop 'do, square jaw, and grim determination, is clearly giving his all here, as are Keitel (as Crew Chief Klough) and the others, but I couldn't help thinking the film would benefit from less diving and surfacing and more exposition. Not what you expect from Hollywood's opening salvo in the summer movie wars, but still … Mostow (Breakdown) has the look and feel down pat -- he hired Das Boot's production designer Gotz Weidner to make sure -- but U-571, for all its realistic bluster, feels vaguely hollow, a torpedo bay freighted with Sturm und Drang and little else.