Film Review: Phantom

Even some faultless acting in the lead roles cannot redeem the preposterous goings-on in this throwback of a suspense thriller set aboard a Russian nuclear submarine at the height of the Cold War.

Ed Harris is such a good actor he can make us believe almost anything—a skill that is sorely tested in Phantom. The first thing we’re asked to believe is that Harris—good old blue-eyed, New-Jersey born Ed Harris—is a Russian. No accent, no Slavonic bluster; his character doesn’t even like vodka. But okay, we buy it, he’s Russian—and he’s also a disillusioned old sea captain, Dmitri (“Demi”) Zubov, who, back in the Cold War era of the late 1960s, is asked to delay his retirement to go on one last secret mission aboard an aging Russian submarine that’s about to be sold to the Chinese. Demi reluctantly accepts the assignment although he has bad feelings about it. And of course he’s right.

In addition to the regular submarine crew—including First Officer Alex (William Fichtner in an exceptional performance)—Demi is ordered to take on board two visiting “technicians,” led by Bruni (David Duchovny), who bring along a secret package that’s lashed to the deck. Their mission is revealed soon enough, when the prowling sub has a close encounter with an American ship, and Bruni orders his assistant to “engage the Phantom,” which turns out to be a clever cloaking device. It doesn’t actually hide the sub they’re on, but it does send out fake signals that could indicate the presence of, say, a Chinese submarine—instead of a Russian one. It’s a handy machine to have, for instance, if you’re a rogue operative in the Russian secret service who wants to start a nuclear war between the U.S. and China and thus effectively wipe out those two nations while leaving the USSR unscathed.

The major faults in this genre-specific plot begin with the fact that it harks back to a genre long gone and probably better forgotten. And it would take a script a lot stronger than this one to revive the powerful fears of a nuclear holocaust that existed throughout the Cold War, or convince us that the political passions of that era were as banal as they seem here. Writer-director Todd Robinson further abandons any attempt at authenticity by stuffing his plot with too many twists and turns (the good guys are in charge; no, the bad guys are on top; no, it’s back to the good guys…), and by sticking in an OK Corral-style gunfight leaving half the cast dead, yet not one bullet pierces the watertight skin of the sub or the miles of pipes and complex gee-gaws crammed within it.

The good and bad guys in Phantom are all Russians, of course, so in a pointless bid to solicit the empathy of American audiences, Robinson gives his lead character, Captain Demi, some pronounced American sympathies. Seems he went on a cultural-exchange visit to New York when he was young and discovered that Americans really don’t want war and, indeed, “they value every individual life.” But his trip to the U.S. is not the most interesting bit in the Captain’s backstory: He’s also an alcoholic (preferring a sailor’s rum over vodka), an epileptic (with wildly visual seizures) and has daddy issues. (His father practically invented the Russian navy and how’s a son supposed to live up to that?) Oh yes, and Demi also carries a heavy burden of guilt over having caused the deaths of six members of a former crew.

Only an actor as accomplished as Ed Harris can carry off such soppy emotional stuff without slipping into satire—or worse, a laughable sendup. He absolutely convinces us that Captain Demi is a towering tragic hero, a flawed and tortured man who’s fated to singlehandedly save the world. (Spoiler alert: Nuclear war is averted.) Harris’ fine performance is very nearly matched by Fichtner as the second-in-command; he’s the moral center of this story, the sidekick who remains loyal and steadfast throughout. Which brings us to David Duchovny as the rogue secret agent who threatens to bring on the worst nightmares of the Cold War. Duchovny happens to have Russian ancestry, so he does look the part, and mostly he avoids giving the camera that smirk of superiority we’ve come to know so well. But is he up to the evil demanded of his role? Well, not really.

Despite such serious caveats, Phantom does create a few moments of genuine tension, and the filmmakers’ use of a real Russian submarine (sitting in dry dock in San Diego) gives a unique authenticity to the setting. More’s the pity that the script strains our credulity so—especially at the end. You can almost hear the angel chorus and feel the brush of those heavenly wings. Perhaps Phantom will play better on DVD, when you’re sitting alone at home—with a bottle of vodka nearby.