LOS ANGELES - Submarine thrillers such as "Run Silent, Run Deep," ''The Hunt for Red October," ''Crimson Tide" and the classic "Das Boot" have long been a cinematic staple. "Phantom," the latest entry in this venerable genre, doesn't exactly rise to the level of its predecessors. Inspired by the true story of the mysterious 1968 sinking of a Russian sub, it's even more claustrophobic than its setting would suggest.
The tense Cold War-era storyline concerns a final voyage undertaken by veteran Soviet captain Demi (Ed Harris), still physically and emotionally scarred by a previous mission that went awry. Although he's previously commanded nuclear subs, he's now put in charge of a dilapidated vessel that's about to be sold to the Chinese navy.
In addition to Demi's regular crew, who include his loyal right-hand man Alex (William Fichtner), several "technicians," led by the mysterious Bruni (David Duchovny), are also aboard. It soon turns out that they're actually KGB agents with orders to take over the sub and - under the cover of a new stealth device called "The Phantom" - fire on a U.S. ship and make it look like it came from the Chinese, thereby starting World War III between Russia's biggest rivals.
The resulting conflict between the vulnerable Demi - he suffers from epilepsy as a result of an injury sustained on his military mishap - and the ruthless Bruni forms the heart of the drama, which offers as much confusing, technical jargon-laden talk as action. The verbiage is fast and furious, only occasionally interrupted by such violent interludes as when Bruni shoots several members of the crew to make a point.
Although the story is told entirely from a Russian perspective, writer/director Todd Robinson disconcertingly employs an all-American cast speaking without accents. The results make it rather hard to suspend disbelief - after all, in "Hunt for Red October," even Sean Connery used an accent to play his Russian character, even if it was the wrong one.
Clearly shot on a low budget, "Phantom" has the look and feel of a gussied-up television movie, reinforced by the presence of a supporting cast that includes such familiar small-screen faces as Sean Patrick Flanery, Lance Henriksen, Johnathon Schaech and Jason Beghe. And while Harris has the world-weary gravitas to make his characterization credible, Duchovny seems utterly miscast as the villainous KKB spy.
Despite the world-changing ramifications inherent to the plot, the results are more tedious than thrilling. And the film makes a serious misstep with its mystical coda that seems more appropriate to an episode of "The Twilight Zone," only minus the portentous narration by Rod Serling.
"Phantom," an RCR Distribution release, is rated R for violence. 97 minutes.