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U-571   B-

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Writers: Jonathan Mostow, Sam Montgomery, David Ayer
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, Jon Bon Jovi, Jake Weber, Erik Palladino, Matthew Settle, David Keith, Thomas Kretschmann.

Review by Rob Vaux

Submarine movies have their own weird attractiveness to them: something that overcomes the genre's many clichés, something that generates suspense from creaky pipes and ominous booms, something that allows us to endure numerous close-ups of a pale, sweaty Harvey Keitel. Maybe it's the inherent claustrophobia of the setting, or our natural unease at the undersea environment. Whatever the reason, it gives films like U-571 a lot of drama with comparatively little effort.

Recent sub films have focused on modern-day vessels, but U-571 returns to the genre's wellspring: World War II. It's 1942, and the German Navy is riding high. Using the secret Enigma code to communicate, Nazi U-boats strike Allied shipping lanes with near-impunity, sending tons of cargo to the bottom. The Allies need the code to break the stranglehold and think they have a chance when one German vessel -- the U-571 of the title -- is disabled during a run-in with an Allied destroyer. High Command dispatches U.S. sub S-33, posing as a German rescue ship, to intercept the boat and take the Enigma. Naturally, things don't go entirely according to plan: after capturing the sub, the S-33 is attacked and sunk, leaving a skeleton crew of Americans onboard U-571 to pilot it back to safe waters.

The set-up is terrific and it pays off well with a lot of tremendously suspenseful sequences. Director Johnathan Mostow works the audience mercilessly, maintaining a deft balance of mounting threats as the Trojan-horse U-571 slowly makes its way towards England. Once nerves start fraying and the depth charges begin to drop, we're pretty much in the film's grip to the very end.

Such skillful execution is enough to overcome some of the film's weaker aspects. With the exception of Matthew McConaughey's Lt. Tyler -- who ultimately takes command of U-571 -- the speaking parts are almost interchangeable. It's difficult telling one fresh-faced sailor from another, and the characters never rise above two-dimensional stereotypes. Hoary clichés dot the production, which even the best direction can't entirely hide. Will Tyler be forced to sacrifice someone for the larger good? Sure. Will we be treated to the drama of a dive far deeper than the sub is designed to withstand? You betcha. Is there a tough Brooklyn street-kid here, just like every other military squad in cinematic history? Need you even ask?

In addition, U-571 borrows more than a little from Das Boot, Wolfgang Peterson's seminal 1981 film. From tight cabin confines to the ghostly crew to the green water surrounding them, the current film looks uncomfortably similar to its predecessor. The two even share the same production designer, Gotz Weidner, who puts identical flourishes on both pictures. Sure, it looks great, but watching the same material evokes inevitable comparisons that U-571 can't help but suffer by.

Despite all that, there's more than enough here to make the film worthwhile. McConaughey and Keitel are fun to watch, even when they don't have much to work with, and they get strong support from a pair of cameos -- Bill Paxton as Tyler's hard-bitten captain and David Keith as the straight-talking Marine who masterminds the raid. Coupled with Mostow's crackerjack direction, they keep things from breaking down too often. Sharp, exciting, and engaging to the end, U-571 has the chops to withstand a few body-blows. While it can't stand with the giants of the genre, it's well-crafted enough so that it really doesn't have to.

Review published 04.28.2000.

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