There are a limited number of options for a movie about a submarine. In general, men in a claustrophobic space are chasing or are being chased by the enemy. This variation on a theme was explored by Crimson Tide, The Hunt For Red October, and of course, the mother of all submarine films, Das Boot . If the latest addition to the genre, U571, is any indication, the possibilities may have been exhausted.
The movie takes place during World War II, in the spring of 1942. U571 is the name of a German submarine carrying the Enigma code, a device for decoding messages that the US wants and plots to take from the Nazis. A group of men are assembled and sent out to rendezvous with the enemy in a submarine camouflaged as a German vessel. Led with steely resolve by the very serious Matthew McConaughey as Lieutenant Andrew Tyler, the Americans meet up with the enemy and, basically, all hell breaks loose. Up until the first big explosion, U571 is a bombastic, overly patriotic propaganda film that plays like a 1940’s version of Top Gun. It’s all testosterone and loud marching-band music.
But once the action gets started, U571 becomes fast-paced, tightly wound, and pretty effective. Granted, there are planet-sized holes in the plot, important details glossed over or completely ignored, and Jon Bon Jovi does costar, but director (and co-screenwriter) Jonathan Mostow is capable of framing some great action shots. The highly simplistic development techniques, like repeatedly establishing that the Germans are bad, I mean really bad (They shoot innocent people! They have beards!), is silly and unnecessary. It’s a relief when the bombs start going off. They should have started sooner.
The performances in U571 are fairly unremarkable. The roles don’t call for much more than heroic posturing and angry outbursts. There’s also an element of baby-faced fear in the younger recruits. That sums up the range required. As a result, the character development is weak overall. But this isn’t an ensemble drama, so it doesn’t really matter. U571 manages to be entertaining in spite of the bland acting. The performers are moved around for the sake of the bigger picture, like props on a huge stage. The melodrama gets in the way of things blowing up (Speaking of things blowing up, the depth charges dropped by the Germans on our heroes are extraordinary. Yay, bombs!).
U571 is a throwback to old war movies, when men under pressure became heroes and where the division between good and evil was as obvious as being hit in the face with a board. This film is ridiculous and monumentally earnest at times, so if you catch yourself rolling your eyes at the beginning, don’t say you weren’t warned. But when the submarine begins its inevitable descent to dangerous depths, the tension is undeniable. U571 is a pretty entertaining piece of camouflage cheese.
+ David Kern