I don’t know, does every generation now get the “Das Boot” it deserves? World War II movies have long been out of favor, but Steven Spielberg and the History Channel can take the credit/blame for re-igniting interest and familiarity with the defining event of the twentieth century. With the commercial and critical success of a film like “Saving Private Ryan”, you can expect two things: Hollywood studios will crank out several more examples of the genre, and the new films will probably become more heavy-handed and less grim.
If you want a lot of tension (and make use of that big water tank set on the Universal Studios’ backlot) but not too much blood, nothing will get a PG-13 easier than a flick about submarine combat. In 1942, German submarines, called U-boats, are taking a heavy toll on allied supply ships in the North Atlantic. When U-571is damaged enough to be disabled but not sink, a race is on between the U.S. and the Germans to reach the stranded sub. An aged American sub, under the command of Lt. Commander Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton), is altered to look like a German sub and sent to overtake U-571.
Wouldn’t you know it? The mission comes at a bad time as Dahlgren’s popular executive officer, Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) is a little pissed that his commander withheld a recommendation for Tyler’s own command because he didn’t feel that his junior officer was quite ready to be leader. Tyler may yet have a chance to prove himself as the mission predictably does not go as anticipated.
It’s this theme of what it takes to be a leader that nearly breaks a surprisingly decent action film. The worst part about submarine combat is that between drowning, torpedoes, and depth charges, you can usually see death coming. You are at the mercy of the weather, the ocean, and enemies you can’t see until it’s too late. You’re also crammed into a big tin can with a bunch of other guys who will smell just as bad as you do. McConaughey and company (the crew skews a little older than the typical bunch of WB stars on their summer vacation) display the fear and do a decent job with what they’re given. Unfortunately, the crew is allowed to be little more than the usual cliches in the service of Lt. Tyler’s “life lessons”.
Writer/director Jonathan Mostow does as good a job creating a thriller here as he did with “Breakdown”. But this new film goes waaaaay out of its way to teach that a leader sometimes has to make some “hard decisions”. Well, so does a director. Mostow would have been better off he had concentrated on entertaining the audience instead of lecturing them.