Dr. Strangeboot

K-19: The Widowmaker
Starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Rated PG-13.
Rated 3.0 As a would-be historical drama, K-19: The Widowmaker holds us hostage to the pseudo-suspense of a near miss at nuclear disaster circa 1961. But it’s also a submarine movie, which at least makes for some very intense action movie suspense midway in the story.

The total package, however, is lumpy and misshapen. The fiercely engaging action of the mid-section arrives only after a stretch of heavy-handed exposition in which a grotesque comedy of ominous errors is played nitwit straight. And the final reels are a weird amalgam of humanistic self-sacrifice and esprit-de-corps melodrama, with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson as Russian officers making noble gestures toward each other after some nearly fatal differences of strategic opinion.

Director Kathryn Bigelow has specialized in iconoclastic takes on action movie genres (Near Dark, Blue Steel, Strange Days), but here she’s wallowing in dead-end material—a humorless variation on Dr. Strangelove followed by first-rate action stuff with a twist of radiation sickness for perverse catharsis and followed by an oblivious parody of military honor in the sub-John Ford mode.

It doesn’t help any that the scripted agonized bonding between Ford and Neeson is as leaky as the Russian sub itself. Ford behaves as if he’s in The Caine Mutiny, while Neeson belongs in Das Boot, and how shall ever the twain meet?