Given the fact that two Texans are top-billed in Jonathan
Mostow’s World War II submarine melodrama, it’s kind of a pity
that the picture wasn’t titled “Das Cowboy Boot.” The moniker
would have been pretty appropriate, too, since the story is
much the same kind of gung-ho, empty action piece that so many
old westerns were.

In the story fashioned by Mostow, Sam Montgomery and David
Ayer, the Hitchcockian MacGuffin is the German Enigma machine,
a typewriterish decoding device that Allied intelligence men
wanted to capture so they could read Nazi naval communiques.
When word is received that a German U-boat’s been damaged and
is drifting in the Atlantic, an American sub is outfitted to
look like a rescue ship, rush to the wounded vessel, seize
it and capture its machine, scuttling the captured boat so that
the Germans won’t be aware of the coup. Needless to say,
complications ensue, and before long a small band of intepid
U.S. sailors are trapped aboard the damaged German vessel,
engaged in the obligatory cat-and-mouse game with a Nazi
destroyer that’s out to get them.

This plot doesn’t have a lot to do with history, of course–as
crawls before the end titles inform us, it was actually a
couple of British ships that got ahold of the Enigma device in
1942–but that doesn’t matter a great deal, since “U-571” is
true not to the actual record but merely to the conventions of
1940s-style war movies. Some of the action sequences are
nicely choreographed, but most of the dialogue and situations
are depressingly banal. A good deal of the first reel is
devoted to setting up a conflict between the sub’s captain
(Paxton) and his executive officer (McConaughey), whom he’s
failed to support for a command of his own because he feels
that his subordinate is too friendly with crewmen and might
not be willing to sacrifice them if necessary. Then, in an
entirely predictable fashion, McConaughey’s Lt. Tyler becomes
the senior officer on the damaged German sub and must prove
his readiness for command on the spot, even when some doubt
that he’s got the right stuff. There follow the inevitable,
supposedly tense scenes of the sub diving desperately as the
German destroyer launches depth charge after depth charge
against it (many close-ups of anxious, sweating faces here, of
course); other sequences involving the captured German
captain’s attempts to sabotage the Americans’ escape efforts
as the sub groans and the increased pressure causes screws to
pop from the hull and pipes to burst; and, needless to say, a
last-ditch “Hail Mary” strategem devised by the heroic
lieutenant which requires him to demonstrate that he does
indeed have the guts to demand sacrifices of his men if the
circumstances require it.

All of this has a certain comic-book vitality to it, but any
serious inspection reveals that it doesn’t really hold water.
By the time that the crew is trying to avoid the explosions
being aimed at them by the German destroyer, the audience has
become increasingly aware of the holes in logic (how can a
boat so deeply damaged engage in all the manueuvering
required for the plot to unfold?) and haunted by recollections
of the same scenes done much more effectively in earlier
films like “Run Silent Run Deep” and “The Enemy Below” (not to
mention “Das Boot” itself, of course)–and repeated endlessly
in outer space venues in all those episodes where the Enterprise
and so many other Star Fleet vessels had to evade deadly
alien fire.

The creakiness of the plot might not be so obvious if the
characters had been more expertly drawn, but they emerge as
stock figures at best. McConaughey’s Lt. Tyler is a standard-
issue ramroad-straight hero, lacking much shading. Paxton is
a by-the-numbers, low-key captain. Harvey Keitel is the
obligatorily grizzled old chief, so devoted to the Navy that
he remembers serving in World War I action; but Keitel plays
him so lazily that one can’t help but think wistfully
what Walter Brennan or Ward Bond might have done to juice up
the role. Jon Bon Jovi is fourth-billed, but so anonymous as
Tyler’s buddy that it’s difficult to believe this is the same
fellow who had such screen presence in John Duigan’s underrated
1996 flick “The Leading Man.” And Jake Weber and David Keith
are little better than ordinary as intelligence honchos sent to
direct the mission.

More of an impression is made by some of the young actors
playing the callow, well-scrubbed enlisted men on the sub.
Jack Noseworthy, Thomas Guiry, Dave Power, Will Estes, Erik
Palladino and Matthew Settle all have their moments, even
though what they’re asked to do is pretty much by-the-numbers.

“U-571” isn’t a disgrace. It’s spiffily constructed, moves
reasonably well and provides innocent, sporadically exciting
entertainment. But compared to those military movies that
generate true emotional power, it’s nothing more than a
momentary diversion. Like the rusted old subs deployed in its
story, the picture seems designed to stay in the safe shallows
and not to plumb any real dramatic depths.