[Written for Mr. Showbiz]
Jonathan Mostow made his feature-directing debut a couple of seasons ago with Breakdown, a tense road-movie-cum-chase-thriller that pitted motorist and husband Kurt Russell against a sinister good-old-boy trucker (the late J.T. Walsh) who had somehow kidnapped Russell’s wife in broad daylight and the wide open spaces of the desert Southwest. The picture became a sleeper hit, and industry and fans alike marked Mostow as somebody to watch. U-571 won’t undo his career — it bids to be another palm-sweater, and technically delivers often enough to keep the popcorn crowd in their seats. But this movie seems to have no reason for existing except as an answer to the rhetorical question: “Do you think somebody nowadays could make an old-fashioned, straight-ahead submarine flick like the ones they did during World War II?” Mostow must have said, “Why not?” whereas many would have ended their riposte one word sooner.
It’s 1942 and the war is young, especially for U.S. forces. In the Atlantic, German U-boats are playing hob with Allied shipping and getting away with it thanks to their unbreakable Enigma code. The officers and crew of the USS-33, a leaky rust-bucket left over from WWI, are yanked back from a 48-hour liberty with orders to put to sea. Joining them are an explosives team headed by a jut-jawed Marine major (David Keith), plus a sallow-faced git named Hirsch (Jake Weber) who mostly communicates in clipped German except for the announcement that he will be in operational control of the mission. That doesn’t necessarily thrill S-33 commander Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton). We already know that executive officer Andrew Tyler (Michael McConaughey) isn’t thrilled, because he’s just learned that his bid for a command of his own was torpedoed by none other than his C.O.
Is any of this new to you? If so, you may watch in fascination as the S-33 heads out to intercept U-571, which has been knocked about during an attack on an Allied ship. S-33 — adorned with a swastika on its conning tower — will hope to be mistaken for a German resupply sub so that Hirsch & Co. can board U-571 and capture its Enigma decoder. Tyler, although barely less of a cipher than the other personnel designated in Mostow’s story grid (Harvey Keitel as your generic Chief, T.C. Carson as a black mess steward whose role is to be black, Erik Palladino as an Italianamerican wisecracker), will hope to be mistaken for a complex-enough character to undergo metamorphosis and become an officer worthy of a command assignment. Because, of course, he effectively gets one, P.D.Q.
In the interest of suspense, we won’t say how, even though that deprives us of the chance to complain about some rather clumsy gaps in the action coverage. Otherwise, U-571 is rigorously free of gaps. There’s barely a line of dialogue that doesn’t plant motivation or supply technical exposition or elliptically hint at a species of crisis that we can be damn sure will arise before the film is over. That may sound like praise, and on a sheer housekeeping level it is. But in terms of viewer involvement, it’s a wash. Nothing extra is allowed to seep in — no development of character for its own sake, no surprise (except the periodic mechanical inversion of the terms of the suspense), and no down time to allow the movie’s intended highs to really be high. The submarines have their problems, but the movie just keeps grinding along, pushing its way through a barrage of noise and a sea of fond clichés.