PLOT: At the height of the Cold War, the haunted captain (Ed Harris) of a Soviet submarine is sent on a top secret mission with a mysterious, hard-line KGB advisor (David Duchovny), who seems bent on starting WW3.
REVIEW: PHANTOM seems like an odd candidate for a wide theatrical release. A relatively low-budget thriller, its the kind of movie that would have probably played really well as an HBO telefilm back in the nineties (before they changed their focus to biographies). As a full-on theatrical film, it seems doomed, and despite a couple of interesting bits and pieces, is not worthy of that kind of treatment, when so many other, remarkable films are sent to VOD.
Taking place in the close-quarters of a Soviet submarine, there are a lot of things that are strange about PHANTOM. The strangest of all is the casting. Despite being entirely composed of Russian characters, everybody is as American as can be. Nobody even attempts an accent- although then again, maybe thats for the best, as Harris and Duchovny running around with obviously fake accents would have been even more distracting than the lack of them.
Of course, PHANTOM starts out with the inspired by true events title card, which is pretty thin in this case- for reasons that become obvious following the epilogue- which reveals some of the historical details. Basically, its a full-on fictional thriller- with only the slightest relation to true events, and even thats pushing it.
The gist of the story is that Harris is a bit of a downtrodden, expendable captain- whos given to epileptic seizures, and carries a terrible reputation in the navy for having once lost his crew. Harris is actually quite good in a rare, leading role- who, essentially, becomes mankinds last hope of averting a war in a kind-of Russian CRIMSON TIDE standoff with David Duchovny, as a radical KGB agent whos convinced he has the secret to winning a nuclear standoff with the U.S.
Duchovny bravely tries his best as the Soviet zealot, which is a role he seems spectacularly ill-suited for. Watching him parade around with a communist Red Star tattooed on his shoulder stretches believability more than a little bit- although the fact that he tries to downplay the madness of his character rather than chew the scenery makes him a little easier to accept. Its a strange piece of casting (although less weird than Andy Garcia, who was supposedly the original choice), but Duchovny sort-of makes it work.
The supporting cast is also quite good. The great William Fichtner is excellent as Harris stalwart second-in-command, whos pretty much got the Liam Neeson in K-19- THE WIDOWMAKER part to Harris Harrison Ford (another film this seems heavily inspired by). Ive always thought Fichtner was underrated, and once again he delivers. Other than him, the rest of the cast, including Jason Beghe, Jonathon Schaech (who, sports a vaguely Russian looking mustache), Kip Pardue, and Sean Patrick Flannery ranges from OK (Schaech) to occasionally excellent (Beghe). Lance Henriksen also has a nice cameo as Harris Soviet commander, and his sinister presence gives the film a good start.
So- if everyones so good in PHANTOM, why isnt it a better movie? It all comes down to the writer-director, Todd Robinson- who previously directed the John Travolta vehicle LONELY HEARTS. While it has a nice visual style, and the score by Jeff Rona is solid, the film cant help but feel like a watered-down rehash of other, much better films- like CRIMSON TIDE, K-19, and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. Its been done before- and really, this should have been a Russian film rather than an American one. With the authenticity of a Russian cast, and a better CGI budget (the CGI shots of the subs and its torpedoes are pretty bad) - PHANTOM would have been a lot easier to take seriously. I should also say that at a relatively scant ninety-eight minutes, the film drags more than a little in the middle. Basically- it "feels" like a DTV movie.
Then again- Im reviewing PHANTOM on the assumption that its a theatrical release. If this was going the VOD route, or playing on cable, Id be easier on it- as its flaws would be easier to overlook. While not particularly memorable, its passable enough time filler. While I wouldnt recommend shelling out ten bucks to see it, if I caught it on TV or Netflix, its good enough that Id watch it all the way through. Perhaps thats faint praise, but its still more than I can say about a lot of other movies out there.