The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Okay, it's official. If you believe the movies (and I do), there is nowhere worse you can serve in any country's military than a submarine. Betrayals, mutinies, drowning, claustrophobic conditions, horrific food, how can you lose? If you're a Russian submariner I suppose. Hunt for Red October, K-19, and now 2013's Phantom, ever so briefly in theaters and another horrific experience for the Russian navy.

A longtime veteran of the Russian navy, submarine captain Demi (Ed Harris) is approached by an old friend and rival to complete one last patrol and mission he knows little to nothing about. Demi will be serving on a sub he commanded in the past, much of his crew assembled for the patrol and the rest filled in with available sailors. At the last minute, he is stopped by two officers and Russian commandos, including Bruni (David Duchovny), who instruct Demi that they must follow their every order. Already wary and quite suspicious of the mission, Demi nonetheless goes along with it...until he finds out their true intention. Then, it's a matter of time to who among his crew will side with him and if they can stop a quickly escalating problem that could result in a global nuclear war between America and Russia.

Now I must have blinked and missed this one, but this based on true events submarine thriller from director Todd Robinson (who also wrote the script) was actually in theaters in early March. Debuting in over 1,000 theaters, it made a whopping $508,000 and was quickly pulled from theaters taking a huge hit against a $18 million budget. I actually thought this was a straight-to-DVD release and was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn't. 'Phantom' has touches of a good movie from the claustrophobic on-sub look of the movie to a worthwhile score from Jeff Rona. The threat of a nuclear missile being fired at America/Russia right in the midst of the Cold War is usually all a good sub thriller would need, but something is missing here. It's unfortunate because the early goings is pretty good.

It's the mystery vs. the knowledge here. The first 45 minutes does a really good job building up the tension and throwing out that sense of mystery out there. Harris' Demi is clearly a tortured individual, suffering from hallucinations and occasional seizures that cripple him out of the blue. What drove him to that point? As for Duchovny and his commando/KGB agent partner (Derek Magyar), what exactly is their mission? What do they hope to achieve? Do we want to know or is it more effective dramatically to not know? For me, the build-up is typically better than the actual reveal. When we don't know and question everything, the mystery makes it better. The revelation here is weak at best and things get more and more convoluted following the reveal. Wasting a strong start, 'Phantom' limps to the finish line.

While it's easy to rip a lot of different things about this flick, the cast is the biggest positive to take away here. Harris is always good no matter the role or quality of the film, and he doesn't disappoint as the tortured Russian sub captain. His explanation for how he ended up where he is -- pawned off in the drecks of the navy -- is a moving, emotional monologue. His Demi decides he's had enough and wants to do the right thing for a change. Duchovny as Bruni is a mixed bag, good when there's mystery, not so good when his intentions are revealed. William Fichtner is excellent in a very strong supporting part as Alex Kozlov, Demi's friend, second-in-command and upcoming replacement. Lance Henriksen even makes a brief appearance as Demi's old friend, now an admiral asking him to undertake this last mission. As for the rest of the crew, look for Johnathon Schaech as Pavlov, the sub's political officer, with Sean Patrick Flanery, Jason Beghe, and Jason Gray-Stanford as key officers for/against completing the "mission."

There's not much more I can say without giving too much away here. When the tension and nerves should be ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level, the story becomes convoluted and distracting. One conversation after another muddles things to the point I wasn't even sure what was going on. The final scenes go for a stylistic choice that I thought bordered on pretentious and artsy. Moral of that story? It is a style choice I thought fell short of its moving intention. A disappointing final review mostly because submarine movies are usually so good. A talented cast is wasted with a story that had potential but derails about halfway through.

Phantom (2013): **/****

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