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K-19: Widowmaker (PG-13)
Paramount Pictures
Official Site
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Producer: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Christopher Kyle
Cast: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard
Rating: out of 5

Have you ever been on a vacation and gone to a place that seemed so familiar? All of sudden, after only a little time there, you stop and say, “Hey… I’ve been here before.” And at that point, the once-new and exhilarating place suddenly becomes merely a re-visit. Well, that’s K-19: The Widowmaker. In Kathryn Bigelow’s ( Strange Days, Point Break) newest endeavor, we find ourselves yet again confined to the belly of a submarine; yet again confronted with the possibility of mutiny and nuclear holocaust; and yet again distressed that the submarine movie sub-genre appears to be as hollow as the subs themselves.

The year is 1961. The cold war is raging, and the USSR is utterly certain that the United States is planning a first attack. Enter Captain Alexi Vostrikov ( Ford), the archetypically stern Soviet sailor recruited to command the USSR’s most valued vessel: the K-19 submarine. The Soviet command is in such a rush to position K-19 off the States’ eastern shores that the sub goes into action with many of its systems operating sub-par. Even worse for Vostrikov, the vessel’s crew, save officer Radtchenko ( Sarsgaard), is still utterly devoted to the ship’s former captain, Polenin ( Neeson). Thus, the stage is set (a la Crimson Tide) for the less than conventional methods of Captain Vostrikov to stir the crewmembers, and conjure whispers of mutiny and subsequent global annihilation.

Ford gives a standard performance that will likely be remembered with Six Days And Seven Nights or The Devil’s Own, as part of the small group of his performances that we’d all rather forget. Don’t get me wrong, a bad Ford performance is better than, say, a good Keanu Reeves one; but Ford’s neglect to utilize that which makes us love him—his intensity softened by charm—is one of the key factors that holds this film back. This film never seems to escape a dullness that comes from its inability to re-create what this real-life, historical event must have been like for the sailors.

I can’t help laughing when I consider that Ford—though many years ago—and Neeson are both graduates of the Jedi Institute for Acting. And, while they are wonderfully talented actors, both (especially Neeson) could have used a little more of The Force on this one. The heart of the suspense in this film is the collision between the two captains, and Neeson can’t carry his weight. Indeed, the entire time I watched their sedative performances, I couldn’t help wishing it were Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman ( Crimson Tide) instead. After all, K-19 is essentially the same, but with worse dialogue.

I went to this expecting to see a new twist on an old sub-genre. With Bigelow (once married to James Cameron)—a director notorious for her unconventional and determined methods—at the helm, I thought K-19 would echo with innovation and surprises. Indeed, her innovation has made Bigelow one of the few successful female action directors in Hollywood. But this film has no great battles—neither underwater, nor on the surface, nor in the belly of the claustrophobic vessel. By the end, you’ll feel like you’ve just disembarked from a very uncomfortable cruise.

There is, however, an upside. Although the beginning rambles on like a drunken Tom Arnold, and although—I’m warning you—the end is anti-climactic at best, the perfect assimilation of Cold War politics into the narrative, and the reminder that the power of destructive technologies is only loosely contained, forces the audience to reevaluate the idiocies of human enmity. Thus, the film is worth a sit-through, even if it is at times uncomfortable. If you want to see a real sub movie, rent the granddaddy of them all, Das Boot. At least that way, you might learn some German.

—W. Duke Greenhill


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