U-571 Movie Review

Waiting for the "U-571" screening to begin the other night, I got into a conversation with a couple other reviewers, wondering aloud if there's any such thing as a bad submarine movie.

Somebody brought up "Down Periscope," a near-laughless 1996 military comedy with Kelsey Grammar, so we narrowed our discussion to submarine dramas.

"Gray Lady Down," someone else suggested, referring to a 1977 Charleton Heston sinking-survival yawner.

"OK, how about submarine war movies?" I said, siting "Das Boot," "Run Silent, Run Deep," and making an allowance for the Cold War, "Crimson Tide" and "The Hunt for Red October."

We concluded there aren't any bad submarine war movies and settled in with high hopes for "U-571," which certainly didn't disappoint.

A nail-biting, battle-scarred thriller about an American World War II sub crew on a mission to secure a Nazi encoding device from a crippled German U-boat, "U-571" isn't about to overshadow any of its genre predecessors, but it sure does pack a phenomenal punch in the ante-upping combat scenes that are the centerpiece of sub warfare flicks.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Lt. Andrew Tyler, a galled Naval officer just passed over for promotion when his company is recalled from a 48-hour pass for this special assignment. Navy Intelligence has intercepted a distress signal from a German sub damaged in a stomach-in-knots battle scene that opens the film. A repair and rescue vessel is on its way from the Fatherland, but if the Americans can get there first they might be able to capture the ship and get their hands on an Enigma encoder -- the message-scrambling gadget that prevented the Allies from breaking German code in the early part of the war.

Off to sea with their aging, leaky vessel disguised with German markings, McConaughey's fellow sailors include Bill Paxton as the captain who told him he wasn't ready for his own command; Harvey Keitel as a sage, veteran chief of the watch; a pair of Special Ops officers (Jake Weber and David Keith) in charge of retrieving the Enigma; and a few poignantly expendable fresh-faced sailors.

The Americans do arrive first and board the U-boat in a vicious man-to-man firefight. But the Nazi's rescue ship is closer than they though. With McConaughey and half the crew still on board the enemy sub, their ride home gets blown out of the water and they have about two minutes to figure out the disabled German sub's controls and dive deep before they meet the same fate.

Beyond its inventively adventuresome set-up, "U-571" is highly formulaic (the obligatory hull-crushing-depth emergency dive comes right on cue) and liberally fictionalized (the British captured the first Enigma machine before the Yanks even entered the war).

Nonetheless, director Jonathan Mostow ("Breakdown") takes the audience on a super roller-coaster ride of proximity-pinging torpedo-in-the-water tension and narrow escapes as the American crew on the crippled German U-boat try to survive several raucous run-ins with the enemy. You'll want to cheer like you're at a college football game when that last remaining missile -- fired during an ingenious tactical maneuver by rookie skipper McConaughey -- finds its target and turns a pursuing German destroyer into a spectacular fireball of lilting, heaving steel.

I could have done without the shopworn, pandering dialogue that pops up at key moments ("Chief, you ever been depth-charged?" a sweating, boyish recruit ask Keitel anxiously as one battle begins). But most of the time such moments are a deliberate -- although not overbearing -- throw-back to the flag-waving war movies of the 1940s that turned pictures like this into a important part of the cinematic landscape.

Even with its state-of-the-art effects and its sometimes conspicuous political correctness (a token black sailor is crowbarred into multiple of scenes), "U-571" often looks like it could turn to black and white at any moment and McConaughey could morph into Humphrey Bogart. Even composer Richard Marvin's abundantly patriotic score is inspired by the music in old war movies.

The submarines have more depth than the characters in this movie, and even McConaughey's development as a commander is given only lip service from the script and from the actor. But it's the adventure that counts here, and this movie has it in spades.


Comments

U-571 Rating

" Weak "

Rating: PG-13, Opened: Friday, April 21, 2000

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