Phantom is another entry in an increasing line of films ranging from magnificent (Das Boot), to very good (The Hunt For Red October) to decent (Crimson Tide) to not-so-good (Below), films that focus on the tension and anxiousness that comes from being in a giant metal tube, armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction, drifting hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface. It’s a sub-genre that I find fascinating — a man-made creation that defies all logic, massive on the outside but tiny and claustrophobic on the inside, with any number of things that could go wrong that could not only spell a horrible death for all aboard, but also, in the case of the Cold War-era subs, capable of spelling a horrible death for much of the entire planet. That, coupled with the frequent political intrigue that often plays a role in these films, makes for the opportunity for riveting storytelling.
In this particular case, most of those themes are strongly represented, and it’s bolstered by an excellent cast. Yet there are several oddities and stumbles to Phantom that prevent it from being a great entry into the genre despite some excellent performances. The film centers around Cold War-era Russian submarine captain Demi (Ed Harris), who for his final mission is chosen to take one of the Soviet fleet’s aging diesel subs on a covert mission. His cargo is the mysterious KGB operative Bruni (David Duchovny) and his top-secret machine, code named “Phantom.” None of the crew has any idea what Bruni’s device does, but Bruni, a Communist radical and zealot, claims it will change the balance of power forever. Despite the protestations of Demi’s first mate and good friend Alex (William Fichtner), Demi allows himself to be drawn into Bruni’s increasingly mad plans that threaten to jeopardize not just the ship and its crew, but the world as we know it.
As you can guess, there’s no shortage of intrigue, political machinations, and the occasional thrilling heroic mixed into Phantom, and often times it works. There is one glaring issue that will take a bit of adjusting to, and that is of course the fact that you have a film set on a Russian submarine, featuring all Russian characters, played entirely by Americans. Americans who neither speak Russian, nor bother to affect a Russian accent. This is, right off the bat, extremely disconcerting and petty as it may sound, one of the film’s greatest obstacles, one that I never fully overcome. It’s in part due to the inherent weirdness of it, but also due to the fact that there’s a specific cadence and rhythm to the Russian language that lends itself to this kind of dialogue, especially when discussing Mother Russia and its role in the Cold War, that is notably absent. As a result, you have what seems like a community theater production of a Russian submarine thriller.
On the plus side, this is somewhat negated by a trio of truly excellent actors in the lead roles, and solid performance by each of them. Ed Harris plays the weary, grizzled military career man flawlessly, and rises to the challenges that this particular role presents — Demi is also a borderline-alcoholic and drug abuser who’s flirting with his own personal madness, and Harris manages to incorporate those potentially explosive traits with subtlety and nuance, rather than play it for a more over-the-top depiction. Duchovny is suitably quietly menacing as the violently overzealous ideologue, pursuing his own agenda under the belief that he is greater serving his country by doing so. The two of them match wits and repartee effectively and their scenes together are feverishly intense. Also turning in some fine work is the ubiquitous and underrated William Fichtner as Alex, whose concerned, brotherly rapport with his captain feels like a genuine human connection and is perfectly grounded. An eclectic supporting cast, including such random but welcome names like Lance Henriksen, Johnathon Schaech, (a very underused) Dagmara Dominczyk, and Sean Patrick Flannery all turn in solid, if workmanlike performances.
What holds the film up is pacing and a lack of focused storytelling, faults which fall squarely on the shoulders of writer/director Todd Robinson. The film moves glacially, crawling through its plot lines at a speed that is entirely too stultifying for a modern military thriller. It wants to be a military thriller with political overtones, and given those conceits a slower pace would be understandable. The catch is that in the end, it lurches into the same conventional thriller tropes that we see time and time again, and its moves are telegraphed so egregiously that it becomes ridiculous. When you know exactly what is going to happen, moving at crawl to get there becomes an exercise in patience that most viewers simply don’t — and shouldn’t — have. Because all of the great performances in the world can’t save you from a story that is utterly predictable. That said, that predictability can be salvaged if its handled through effective storytelling, which is sadly not the case with Phantom. The actors all give it their all, but there are still some awkward stumbles in dialogue, and since it follows so closely in the footsteps of some of its predecessors, you start to wish you’d instead just sat down for something better. It’s less Das Boot and more K-19: The Widowmaker, if you will.
Phantom isn’t a bad film as much as it’s simply not a very memorable one. There are excellent performances all around, but they’re dragged down by some derivative storytelling and a film that feels like it never can quite hit its stride. It’s got a brief, action-heavy climax that feels like it doesn’t resolve anything, and most unfortunately is has a terrible final two minutes, where the film suddenly plummets from realistic political thriller into mawkish, sentimental garbage. It’s a weird moment, the films final shot, totally out of sync with the rest of the film that makes the somewhat acrid taste in the mouth become exponentially more bitter. Phantom is a film that desperately wants to have depth to its story, but it’s that very story that eventually sinks it.