The submarine goes deep but the story never does in “U-571,” a good old-fashioned WWII picture that is exciting in only the most superficial way. Well crafted but consisting almost exclusively of suspense and action high points with little modulation and even less characterization, Jonathan Mostow’s follow-up to his masterfully tense debut, “Breakdown,” has the requisite thrills and chills to become a popular popcorn picture with mainstream audiences worldwide, even if it’s as disposable as the popcorn box when it’s over.
A fictionalized account of the Allied (but, historically speaking, mostly British) effort to break the Nazis’ Enigma code by capturing an enemy submarine with one of the coding machines on board, the film’s story unfolds in an exceedingly mechanical way, as if written in strict adherence to nuts-and-bolts principles taught in a screenwriting course. The picture gets the job done where it counts for the modern public, in terms of the instant gratification provided by the special effects, technical verisimilitude, multiple climaxes and even politically correct elements. But it has no emotional or moral weight at all, leaving it leagues behind the classic it clearly means to emulate and, in some instances, explicitly imitates, Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot.”
Set in the spring of 1942, a time when Hitler’s U-boats were seriously disrupting Allied shipping in the North Atlantic and along the U.S. East Coast, pic has drawn on a number of actual events to shape a streamlined tale of a boatload of largely inexperienced American sailors who are put to the test in a hurry when pitted against the German Navy. Opening sequence, set aboard the title vessel, quickly presents the extremes of submarine service, as the Nazi crew’s exhilaration at a spectacular direct hit against an Allied ship is followed by the horror of an attack by depth charges, which heavily damages the boat.
Knowing that the disabled sub with an Enigma transmitter is within range, the Yanks snap into action in an attempt to reach the U-571 before a German rescue craft can. To outwit their opponents, the American sub, the WWI-vintage S-33, has been disguised as a Nazi craft, and a German-speaking Yank officer will lead the boarding party and try to keep the ruse going long enough for his small unit to overtake the stranded U-boat.
It’s a perfectly good setup for a story of risk, derring-do and heroism, and one that features a couple of major reversals along the way that place the Americans in ever-greater jeopardy; as an underwater rollercoaster ride, it’s been outfitted with as many twists and sudden free falls as its cunning craftsmen could devise. But there is scarcely a moment of downtime, and perhaps one brief dialogue scene devoted to anything other than procedural matters.
In this context, it hardly matters who the characters are, so long as they collectively possess a varied set of traits that manage to coalesce into a unit with a winning combination. At the story’s fore is Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey), a sullen fellow with his nose out of joint over not having been given command of his own boat. Instead, he must serve Lt. Commander Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton) and also do the bidding of Marine Maj. Coonan (David Keith), who joins the expedition with a load of explosives. Among the other faces that stick out of the crowd are those of WWI vet Chief Klough (Harvey Keitel), communications expert Lt. Peter Emmett (Jon Bon Jovi), the German-fluent Lt. Hirsch (Jake Weber), radioman Wentz (Jack Noseworthy) and black cook Eddie (T.C. Carson).
Film’s big early scene, and the plot’s pivot, comes in the driving rain at night as the American sailors attempt to board the Nazi sub from two inflatable rafts. Given the dark and torrential conditions, it is understandably hard to make out all the action during this major set piece, but this is still no excuse for not clearly showing what happens to two important characters: Keith’s domineering Marine Major suddenly disappears, never to be seen again, while Paxton’s commander can be glimpsed in the water signaling for Tyler to forget about him and take off, although how and when he was injured remains obscure.
But this is only the beginning of the irritants. This is one of those movies, very much of the old school, in which the bad guys’ aim is always off but the good guys invariably hit the target, however difficult, with a single shot. Especially in the final climax, with the U-571 locked in mortal combat with a Nazi destroyer, the Germans fire off countless salvos that just barely miss the heroes, while the latter make implausibly lucky hits on more than one critical occasion. The Americans seem to survive more close calls than Indiana Jones did in all of his adventures rolled together, and this is meant to be a basically realistic picture: They figure out how to operate a German submarine within minutes, eliminate the attacking U-boat with dispatch, knock out the destroyer’s radio tower, elude countless depth charges and torpedoes and fix pesky electrical problems and water leaks on their way to the final showdown with the destroyer.
In the sequence that most directly mimics one in “Das Boot,” the U-571 dives to 200 meters, far below the maximum allowable depth. Mostow’s staging is competent, but the level of danger and tension never comes close to what Petersen generated, partly due to the far lesser degree of claustrophobic containment the new film achieves and partly because of its more artificial and concocted nature. Even though there are deaths and sacrifices along the way, “U- 571” is fundamentally a story of anonymous men rising to the occasion, with none of the complex components of irony, doom and a genuinely tragic hero overlaid upon the accomplishment of the job at hand that made “Das Boot” such a rich experience.
Tyler is the only figure endowed with what could remotely be termed a character arc, moving from begrudging obedience to uncertainty and finally to forceful, unhesitant action. All of McConaughey’s usual tics and mannerisms have been drained away here, leaving nothing but determination — both on the part of the character and the actor — to do a good job. Given more to work with, Keitel could have made something of his old salt character, but virtually all the dialogue, like the movie itself, is unpoetically functional, leaving the actors with little to do other than react to events as they rapidly unfold.
The moral bankruptcy of the Nazis is underlined in an early scene in which they are shown mowing down a lifeboat full of sailors on the high seas rather than taking them prisoner, and the filmmakers get in a contempo dig at the then-heavily segregated U.S. armed forces by having the black cook survive and demonstrate that he can quickly master any technical job he’s assigned.
Shot in Malta and at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, pic boasts fine production values and effects, save for a couple of too-obviously digital explosions. Richard Marvin’s score is far too insistent and full of martial-music cliches.