2 stars out of 4
Though not what you'd really consider "A-List" guys, four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris and former "X-Files" leading man David Duchovny have enough of a combined following to gain the backing of any major studio, regardless of the material. However after watching "Phantom," it's easy to understand why every major and notable boutique studio passed on it.
Combining the lesser-appealing facets of "Das Boot," "The Hunt for Red October," "Fail Safe" and all versions of "Mutiny on the Bounty," "Phantom" fits squarely into the military/espionage thriller genre and will appeal only to a miniscule demographic: Cold War aficionados and conspiracy theory buffs.
It doesn't take more than five minutes before we know "Phantom" will be a lackluster and wanting production. The dreaded "based on true events" disclaimer lets us know little, if any, of what we're about to see ever really happened and every character in the movie -- all of them Russian -- speak perfect English and no Russian. They don't even bother to attempt Russian accents. Every second that passes reminds us that we're watching a movie.
Although not made clear, it is implied that "Phantom" is set in the present day where hard-line holdovers from the U.S.S.R. want to return to the days of paranoia and muscle-flexing. As played out here, they are the Eastern European version of the U.S. Tea Party.
About to be forcibly retired, naval Captain Demi (Harris) is ordered by his living-on-borrowed-time commander (Lance Henriksen) to provide transport to some civilians on a mission that won't be made clear until the submarine carrying them is far out to sea. The son of a legend, Demi has spent his entire professional life trying to escape his father's shadow, all to no avail. Frustrated on every level and rife with regret, Demi -- ever the patriot -- grudgingly accepts his orders.
For a good half-hour, writer/director Todd Robinson overstuffs the film with dry, repetitious Tom Clancy-inspired military jargon that, in addition to being excruciatingly boring, does nothing to propel the plot. When not spewing navigational instructions, Demi is never far from the working end of a bottle of spirits or experiencing some nasty bits of flashback.
Right about the time when we're about to give up on the narrative, Robinson finally gets to the meat of the story: Bruni (Duchovny) is not a civilian but rather a former military spook with orders from on high to commandeer the sub and launch a nuclear warhead targeted at the U.S. That might sound like too much of a plot reveal, but there's much more to it and it is admittedly grabbing, for a couple of minutes.
The biggest problem (apart from the plot) facing "Phantom" is the same that comes into play with every underwater/submarine-based movie. Because of the close-quarters, extremely limited framing choices and even more restrictive color options, the film is claustrophobic and visually unappealing. Overpowering brassy yellows, steel-gun blues and muted blacks saturate the stock and even the best makeup artist can't mask the pale, sweaty and flat texture of the actors' skin.
The movie concludes with an epitaph citing the source of the story -- an event that supposedly took place in the Caribbean in the 1960s. As neither the U.S. nor the Soviet governments ever acknowledged the event, it's hard to swallow anything the film lays out and merely plays into the most far-fetched conjecture. Ending with what may or may not be a dream sequence, the movie concludes on a relative high-note but it comes far too late in the proceedings to give us any cause to care one way or another. (RCR Media)