Written by Michael Nazarewycz
Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it seemed that there were two types of actors: Americans playing Americans and Brits playing every other nationality. The examples are endless, and of course there are exceptions, but it’s hard to watch a drama from the 1930s and 1940s that features characters from somewhere other than the US or UK and not see British actors portraying those characters. (Just look at Claude Rains, a British actor who played a Frenchman in Casablanca and a German in Notorious. Come to think of it, he even played an American in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.)
But as the decades have passed, Hollywood has become more of a melting pot, and who uses what accent is becoming a thing of the past. Even Superman, in this year’s summer release Man of Steel, an alien who has come to symbolize the USA (so much so that Supes sold war bonds in the ‘40s and is the centerpiece of a considerable marketing campaign for the National Guard today), is played by the British actor Henry Cavill.
So when Phantom came along, with its 1960s Cold War military vibe and its all-Russian character list, I thought for sure I’d be in for 97 minutes of old-school thick accents that would remind me of the people I grew up around (check out my last name). Well, the film reminded me of the people I grew up around, just not that side of the family. To a man, every actor in Phantom uses his own red-blooded American voice, and that is a major distraction, which is not good for a film that struggles to hold your attention to begin with.
Ed Harris stars as Demi, a veteran captain in the 1960s Soviet Navy who, upon returning to shore after a long journey in his submarine, is ordered by his commanding officer, Markov (Lance Henriksen), to run one last mission, this time in his old submarine before it is decommissioned. But the mission Demi is sent on is so covert, the captain doesn’t even know what his full orders are. With his trusted first officer, Alex (William Fichtner), at his side, he rounds up his men and dives once again.
Once submerged, Demi learns that he has a few extra passengers onboard, in the form of Bruni (David Duchovny) and a few of his men. Bruni is a KGB agent who assumes unofficial captainship of the vessel. His plans, of course, are nefarious. The sub has been fitted with a new device called “The Phantom,” which alters its sonic appearance to other ships’ radar to make it look like some other type of ship. After an intentional encounter with a US ship proves the technology works, Bruni is ready to raise the stakes and possibly start World War III. Demi has other plans.
I was intrigued by the collection of actors assembled for this film, as I have admired their individual work to varying degrees for years. In four-time Oscar-nominee Harris, you have a strong lead, seemingly right for the role of a failed, aging military man. In Duchovny, who is surprisingly only 10 years younger than Harris, you get all the smugness a cocky KGB agent needs. And in Fichtner and Henriksen, you get a pair of very skilled character actors who understand their roles and how they should be played. There’s even a role played by another character actor, Johnathon Schaech, the youngster at age 43.
Yet none of them are good in this, for two key reasons. The first is the absence of Russian accents. It’s one thing when everyone speaks English, regardless of their nationality, but to be devoid of even a hint of accent? I wondered for a while about this decision and came to the conclusion that the filmmakers must have consciously decided that since every character in the film is Russian, there are no American accents to compare against, so if everyone sounds the same, the suspension of disbelief is lightened. That plan failed. Not only was it distracting for me to watch, it felt like the cast was distracted by it as well.
The second reason the cast doesn’t work is that, as a collective, they are too all-American. Harris played John Glenn in The Right Stuff and Gene Kranz in Apollo 13; Duchovny played FBI Agent Fox Mulder on TV’s The X-Files; Fichtner played Colonel Willie Sharp in Armageddon, as well as other roles in very American films like Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down; Henriksen played Wally Schirra in The Right Stuff and former FBI agent Frank Black on TV’s Millennium; and Schaech played Jimmy, the heartthrob lead singer of The Wonders (aka the Oneders), in the unabashedly Americana-ish That Thing You Do!. If one or two of them starred alongside European actors, I think it would work, but with five of them … and in those American voices … it simply doesn’t work.
They aren’t the only ones at fault, either. For a Cold War thriller set in a submerged submarine, there is rarely a sense of tension, something that falls squarely on the shoulders of writer/director Todd Robinson, although there is nothing in his oeuvre to suggest this type of film is in his wheelhouse. This might also explain his inclusion of try-to-make-you-jump snap flashbacks that Harris’ character has as he tries to reconcile the errors of his past while battling a building epileptic seizure. Small things like that, plus a groaner of an ending, don’t do the film any favors.
It has its positive moments, though. Of all things, the lighting inside the sub is really quite good, as are a couple of dawn/dusk exteriors, both of which look gorgeous on the Blu-ray. The sound, which is critical in a submarine film, is also very good.
In addition to an Ultraviolet digital download that comes with the Blu-ray, as well as audio commentary, the extras are standard bonus fare. There are two behind-the-scenes featurettes – the first, Facing the Apocalypse – deals specifically with the film itself (including information on that great lighting), while the second – The Real Phantom – covers the history behind the real-life events that inspired the film. A third featurette – Jeff Rona: Scoring Phantom – features the composer showing viewers how he made music out of the sounds made on the submarine. This is accompanied by a music video (!) for “An Ocean Away,” one of the songs from the film.
The tagline for Phantom is, “You’ll Never See It Coming.” So take my advice and avoid having it sneak up on you.