Reports about a Soviet submarine that sank in the Pacific during the Cold War and rumors that one of its ballistic missiles was later recovered on the ocean floor—matters that, we’re told, both Russian and American governments have kept classified—are worked up into a “Bedford Incident”-style would-be nail-biter by writer-director Todd Robinson. Despite the efforts of a game cast, who could easily have managed the Russian accents that for some reason Robinson didn’t ask them to attempt, “Phantom” comes across as somewhat less credible than “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.”
Ed Harris stars as Demi, a gruff Soviet sub captain haunted by memories of a tragedy when many of the men under his command perished—something suggested in ham-fisted flashback montages. He’s assigned by old rival Markov (Lance Henrikson) to oversee the last mission of an aging ship about to be decommissioned and sold to China. What he doesn’t know is that one of his passengers, the mysterious Bruni (David Duchovny) is a fanatical KGB agent who intends using a new cloaking device—the eponymous Phantom—to launch a nuclear attack on the American Pacific fleet that will be blamed on the Chinese and initiate a war from which the Soviet Union will, as a neutral, remain relatively unscathed while seeing the US destroyed.
Frankly this scenario seems pretty farfetched, given that the Chinese nuclear arsenal was paltry, compared to that of the US, in the late sixties, when the tale is supposedly set. But for Robinson the doomsday plot, and the nonexistent Phantom device, are but pretexts for a test of wills between Demi, the old-style, by-the-book, ultra-competent though flawed patriot, and Bruni, the steely fanatic who, like General Jack D. Ripper, believes that war is now too important to be left to the politicians. (Surely his speech on this score is intended as a homage to Kubrick’s creation.) Demi and his loyal subordinates—led by his second-in-command Alex (William Fichtner) must resort to all sorts of feints and tricks, as well as direct action—dismantling missiles, sending out a message to other Russian ships, engaging in gun battles—to try to prevent Bruni and his band of henchmen from succeeding in their nefarious plot. In the middle is the irresolute ship’s poliical officer, Pavlov (Jhonathon Schaech, who’s compelled to wear one of the most unflattering moustaches in recent film but, to compensate, is given a self-sacrificing death scene).
The basic arc of the script is clear enough, but frankly some of the episodes seem rather ill-explained, and at one point Robinson has to drop in an absurd twist (a sub crew member is incapacitated by claustrophobia, of all things, forcing a less experienced hand to attempt the missile dismantling). He also tries to cover his tracks by having the characters toss around an incredible amount of technical gobbledegook designed, it appears, simply to drown us in a sea of non-meaning. No amount of verbiage, however, could justify a coda as goofy as the one in “Safe Haven.” Since when have ghosts become the go-to plot mechanism to add a schmaltzy finale to a dour story?
Despite all this, Harris and Fichtner remain fun to watch, even when they’re expending their intensity on such threadbare material. Duchovny is much less interesting, delivering what’s essentially a one-note turn. Nor is the movie helped by a physical production that’s very short in the effects department. The underwater sequences of the sub and the other ships it comes into contact with look exactly like the mediocre model work they are.
“Das Boot” set an extremely high standard for high-tension submarine pictures. By contrast “Phantom” comes across as dramatically waterlogged and, despite the efforts of a strong cast, more than a little silly.