The wrong stuff
In writer-director Todd Robinson’s waterlogged thriller of Cold War brinksmanship, self-described as an even closer call than the Cuban missile crisis, Ed Harris plays a Russian submarine captain with an unexpected chance to save the world. All that stands in his way is a fellow Russian played by David Duchovny. Weird, right?
Consider it some sort of opportunity. Here we may, for what it’s worth, contemplate the cultural progress by which an actor who once was a ringer for the all-American astronaut and future Congressman John Glenn now impersonates a bleary, redundant Soviet submariner. No, never mind: It’s not worth much. Harris, high flyer of The Right Stuff, sinks to some murky depths in Phantom, although, thankfully, not without maintaining his now-wizened dignity.
He’s the hero here, this we know. This captain drinks rum, he says, because it’s a proper sailor’s drink; vodka’s for the politicians. He has a nice manly rapport with his loyal first officer (William Fichtner), and presides comfortably over several manly moments of submarine guys doing submarine stuff: calling out jargony commands on heavy phones, swiveling the periscope, spinning the wheels. He also has a brain injury from an earlier mission, and now and then a seizure, shown by Robinson as a horror-movie montage of loud, bright, fractured bad memories. Obviously, that will be important later.
While charting a course to retirement, the captain gets a classified mission to reboard the first sub he ever commanded, an aged relic like him, and take her out again for a covert operation. Here he meets Duchovny, an agent of dubious authority whose orders, as one crewman explains, “come from the most zealous elements of the KGB.”
“There are only two reasons why a boat would go rogue,” the captain soon finds himself explaining. (When not doing submarine stuff, the cast of Phantom does a lot of explaining.) “One is to defect, and the other is to start a war. I don’t think we’re defecting.” Having a seizure-prone captain might be a third reason, but nobody has time to bring that up because a doomsday scenario seems already to be at hand, with Harris and Duchovny ominously asking each other, “What if you’re wrong?” and fisticuffs and gunfire, and Duchovny eventually stripping down to a tank top to show how zealous he really is.
The true events from which Phantom jumps off are fewer than its opening titles imply. It would be fine to credit Robinson with an imaginative fabrication, had he used more imagination. But for all its suspense-stoking theatrics, his movie has the lethargy of a lazy mashup, like every grave-situation-on-a-submarine film of the past 20 years, plus maybe a couple of Star Trek episodes, rolled into one unabashedly corny and somewhat budget-challenged chamber drama. Here we go thinking back on its predecessors—the Sean Connery one, the Harrison Ford one, the Denzel Washington one, the Matthew McConaughey one, the German good one—and whoops, World War III is about to start. What did we miss?
Something about a stealth technology by which to trick the Americans into nuclear war with the Chinese, apparently. “Engage the Phantom!” Duchovny orders, seeming to congratulate himself for keeping a straight face, and maybe that’s really all the explanation we ever needed. Although hardly Harris’ equal, Duchovny has marvelous confidence, like it’s somehow on purpose that his charisma can’t exceed small-screen capacities. The careful design of Phantom’s claustrophobia must be in part to conceal its overt TV-movie trappings. In another conspicuous touch, presumably for efficiency’s sake, everybody just speaks English, with whatever accent he already has. Fichtner and other supporting players do their duties resolutely, too, and the movie flatters them as best it can: forgettably.
A dense, dull object of highly unlikely buoyancy, Phantom does at least assume the general proportions of its main setting. Sometimes, it is solid in a no-nonsense way, like some workmanlike B-movie from a bygone Hollywood. Other times—most times—it’s stilted as hell. A mawkish dream-sequence epilogue doesn’t help matters, but does inadvertently simulate the sensation of drowning.