Here’s the big ugly secret about Phantom. It’s good. I’m serious. It’s a damn good little movie.
The premise involves a Russian submarine captain (Ed Harris, of course!) being sent on one last mission at the height of the Cold War in an ill-equipped ancient ship with a cobbled together crew so a few shady officials (including David Duchovny, of course!) can conduct experiments. From the trailer it appears there is a supernatural component to the film and aside from a little bit of touchy-feely allegory in the film’s waning moments it’s simply not true. The film is a serious and meaty little showcase for a handful of great character actors and a baton passing of sorts to men who are starting to ease into that niche for the first time. Mixed in with already established classics like William Fichtner, Harris, Lance Henriksen, and Jason Beghe comes the next wave of potential character actors in the form of Kip Pardue, Sean Patrick Flanery, and Jonathan Schaech. It’s an interesting mix watching this somewhat odd assortment of men portraying a group of naval officers in a period film.
The film begins with Harris and his XO Fichtner returning from a long journey and being given an assignment by superior Lance Henrisken (buy his book from CHUD) and what immediately is evident is writer/director Todd Robinson’s eye and interest in riding the right cliches and avoiding the wrong ones. It’s a film with long takes that linger on the actors and let them do their jobs. There isn’t a lot of the “blue” look often associated with films of this type and there’s virtually no attempt to woo the audience with fast cuts and visual trickery. It’s something which endears this film to audiences weaned on the films of an age seemingly gone by. It’s also something which reveals one of the film’s weaknesses. When the time does come to deliver a visual punch it really lacks both the resources and inventiveness to do so. During the combat sequences or when Harris experiences one of a few flashback/dream sequences the film’s lack of sizzle costs it of extra impact. With that in mind, the emphasis on character and performance is a welcome one. Robinson’s been banging around the business a while (he wrote the wrongly maligned White Squall) and he obviously appreciates a versatile actor when he finds one.
Ed Harris is fantastic as a haunted man whose career is filled with lost moments and Fichtner is even better as a man torn between loyalty and duty. Duchovny is an actor who did so much good work in The X-Files and then proceeded to make us forget. It’s good to see him onscreen, especially surrounded by a cadre of interesting actors. There’s still time for him to deliver on all that early promise. Most of the cast is solid though it takes Jonathan Schaech to deliver a performance from under an unfortunate mustache.
Solid direction, good dialogue, and a plot that does a decent job of moving along without getting stupid. What isn’t to like?
Phantom is not good enough to justify making a long trek to catch in theaters but it’s surely worth a couple of hours of time if you appreciate the all-too-rare entries in the submarine subgenre or a little time with the actors who have made the margins often better than the bulk of so many movies.
How are the Russian accents?
What Russian accents? There’s not even a Red October mouthzoom to switch the audience’s accuracy meter off. Aside from their names and the fact they drink vodka like it’s going out of style there’s nothing here to even attempt a recreation of the Russian way of life.
Is this what character actor Heaven looks like?
No, but it’s solid. Character actor Heaven looks like the scout’s table scenes from Moneyball.
Is Ed Harris the bomb in Phantom, yo?
He’s great though it’s weird to see him starting to look like an older man. Long gone is the Father’s Day blonde-haired dancer from Creepshow.
Is this movie sub par?
It’s sub above-par.
What the Hell does this movie need to be worthy of wide release?
It’s doomed by its cast, premise, and lack of snazzy production value. What it has is a damn good shot at being a cable or impulse rental sleeper for a sizable chunk of people.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Nick On… Is my new ongoing movie review column. The goal is to distill things a little and make it a little more playful and easier to digest rather than the long form. Hope you like. Please let me know what you think as there will be many of these coming and the goal always is to improve. Please share and whatnot.