In the narrow field of movies set on Soviet submarines, Phantom comes a distant second to The Hunt for Red October and struggles to outpace K-19: The Widowmaker. This film is based on a real-life incident in 1968 that, as a title card informs us, came perilously close to starting a nuclear war with America. (In reality, this is a rather far-fetched theory behind the sinking of Soviet submarine K-129.) For all this, the movie doesn’t generate much in the way of suspense.
Our hero is Capt. Dmitri Zubov (Ed Harris), an aging sub captain who has his leave cut short and is sent back out to sea along with his tired crew for one more patrol in a diesel-powered rust bucket — at a time when most of the Soviet Navy’s subs run on cleaner nuclear power — ostensibly to monitor American ship movements in the South Pacific. Yet along with his 86 crew members is a KGB officer named Bruni (David Duchovny) who’s operating on his own secret orders, only telling the captain that he’s there to test some unspecified equipment. The haunted son of a war hero, the captain is approaching the end of an undistinguished career and hallucinating as a result of self-medicating his epilepsy with heavy drinking. Despite this, he may be the best hope for averting World War III.
Writer-director Todd Robinson makes good use of the boat’s cramped quarters and smartly doesn’t have the American actors put on Russian accents, although William Fichtner is able to cleverly throw a few small Slavic burrs into his delivery in the role of Zubov’s second in command. Yet most of Robinson’s previous work has been on TV, and his inexperience betrays him in the naval battle sequences, as the sub winds up being targeted not only by the Americans but also by Soviet ships. The effects are subpar, and the director fails to get any sort of tension out of them.
Failures of storytelling are every-where in evidence. This 98-minute film takes almost half an hour simply to get going, and while Robinson the writer shows respect for our intelligence by throwing submarine jargon at us without stopping to explain much, he makes complete nonsensical hash out of a sequence with two technicians trying to get into a missile tube to disarm the sub’s nuclear warhead. The personnel on the sub are weakly characterized, so we have trouble telling who’s on which side when a mutiny rises against the captain. The pairing of the older, weightier Harris with the younger, spryer Duchovny might have looked like a good idea on paper, but Harris’ steely toughness (so often an asset in character roles) becomes monotonous in a lead role, and Duchovny is too lightweight for the zealous ideologue character that he’s given here. Better casting could have made this worth the price of a movie ticket, but as it is, Phantom looks like something that should have gone straight to DVD.
Starring Ed Harris and David Duchovny. Written and directed by Todd Robinson. Rated R.