There’s a lot to like about “Phantom” — from a terrific ensemble cast of notable character actors to several genuine moments of claustrophobic tension — but the movie, like the rust-bucket old submarine in which most of it takes place, would be better off dry-docked.
Based on a little-known incident in May of 1968 which one historian says drove the superpowers even closer to nuclear war than the Cuban Missile Crisis did a few years earlier, “Phantom” takes what could have been a nail-biter of a story and too often lets the air out when things get tense. In the hands of a better director, there’s no telling how great a movie you could get out of that plot and this cast, but writer-director Todd Robinson (who scripted the seafaring “White Squall”) misses more than he hits.
Ed Harris stars as Demi, a Soviet submarine captain whose entire naval career has been overshadowed by his father’s achievements and by past mistakes he can’t quite shake. He’s planning to retire from active duty when his commanding officer Markov (Lance Henriksen) gives him one last assignment, taking a battered old B67 out for one last run before it gets sold off to the Chinese. (Demi’s old sub, like its newly-appointed captain, has seen better days.)
His crew includes his longtime second in command Alex (William Fichtner), protocol officer and hard-line Communist Party apparatchik Pavlov (Johnathon Schaech) and trusted medic Semak (Jason Beghe). Joining the crew in a cloud of mystery from the KGB is Bruni (David Duchovny), who doesn’t make his motivations immediately apparent to the others.
(It’s worth nothing that none of these actors makes any attempt to sound Russian, which turns out to be a solid strategy — we don’t get distracted by “moose-and-squirrel” accents and are thus more able to empathize with these men, even though they represent one-time enemies of the state.)
We come to learn that Bruni has brought aboard a new device known as the Phantom, which can cloak submarines from radar detection. His plan, which may or may not be backed by the Kremlin, involves firing a warhead at a U.S. ship, letting the Chinese take the blame, and watching those two countries nuke each other into oblivion while Russia calmly watches at a distance.
Demi, whatever his flaws, isn’t about to shoulder the blame for World War III, which sets him and his confidants against Bruni and the crew members following his orders. And since all this is happening inside a tiny submarine, you’d imagine plenty of non-stop tension at close quarters, right?
Well…we get a little of that, admittedly, and sometimes it’s effective. Robinson makes two significant errors that unfortunately capsize his better ideas: he doesn’t effectively map out the submarine, so that when one cadre is conspiring against the other, we don’t always know where our heroes are in relation to the people they’re fighting against, and that undercuts the suspense.
The filmmaker’s other mistake is to assume that the viewers know a lot about how submarines work and where they travel in relation to other watercraft and what they do in combat situations, which leads to a lot of scenes where people yell jargon at each other and push buttons frantically and look through periscopes intently, while the land-lubbers in the audience have no idea what’s at stake or even what just happened.
Faultless in all this is the cast, with Harris and Fichtner effectively portraying the mutual respect and waterlogged exhaustion of these two old salts. As a showcase for some of the screen’s finest supporting players, “Phantom” delivers, but its flaws drag the proceedings to the bottom of the briney.