You know you’re watching a bad movie when you keep glancing at your watch waiting for everyone to die. That’s how I spent the second hour of K-19: The Widowmaker , the dull, tired, by-the-numbers submarine thriller that brings the world once again to the brink of nuclear disaster. With all of the war movies Hollywood keeps visiting so frequently, I’m not kidding when I say I’ve been to the brink of nuclear disaster more times recently than I’ve been to the deposit window of my local bank.
“Based on a true story” have become strong words of warning that should be accompanied by a disclaimer. As often as not, they mean clumsy exposition and preachy sentimentality will get in the way of developing real characters and telling a good story, and that is exactly what happens here. This true story takes place at the height of the Cold War, in 1961. Struggling to keep up with the arms race, the Russians are desperate to launch their first nuclear submarine. Apparently any submarine will do, even one that runs like a Hyundai and is held together by rubber cement and Popsicle sticks. Captain Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson, opting for more than the pocket change that mercifully keeps bringing him back to Broadway) is responsible for making K-19 seaworthy and commanding its maiden voyage, but evil Soviet bureaucrats are forcing full-throttle production at an unsafe speed. Refusing to rush the job at the expense of his crew’s safety, Polenin is demoted. The hard-driving, party-loyal lapdog puppet Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford, with extra furrows in his brow to let you know he means business) is brought in to finish the job. This is the point where I advise you to take leave early and check the Nasdaq. Everything else is a yawn.
Did everyone forget to tell producer-director Kathryn Bigelow (creator of such potboilers as Strange Days and Point Break ) that in the year 2002, Russian military men in the movies are no longer cheap, one-dimensional stereotypes? In lieu of real characters, we know the Soviet pencil-pushers are evil because they wear bearskin hats and stalk their offices with hands clasped behind their backs. The hearty peasant sailors are good eggs because they drink vodka and tell stories of home. Lotta laughs in Kiev. It seems the only caricatures Ms. Bigelow left out are Rocky and Bullwinkle ‘s intrepid moose-and-squirrel-hunters, Boris and Natasha.
As we prepare to go to sea, ominous signs fill the salt air. The reactor officer starts drinking on the job. The crew fails basic safety drills. The ship’s doctor is killed in a freak truck accident. Then the one thing that should break-the champagne bottle at the ship’s christening-doesn’t. All of this signals ill winds indeed. If only we cared. And we should care, because that’s the only way this movie can wring any empathy from jaded audiences when the men face the cruel and certain death that awaits them 60 minutes later. So, before we leave port, a few quick steps must be taken to humanize our seafaring heroes. Somebody must have pointed out that there has to be more to a missile-launching vessel than a periscope, and a much better submarine movie called Das Boot might invite unfavorable comparisons. Here I am forced to tip my hat to the director, who quickly adds depth and pathos to her crew with remarkable efficiency: Harrison Ford has a stern, distant father. The naïve engineer has a comely fiancée in a pink coat. The bumbling enlisted man has an adorable pet mouse. Masterful shorthand, really. The only question left for the viewer is which character-Captain Ford, the engineer or the mouse-will be the first to die from a massive dose of radiation poisoning. (Hint: At his salary, it’s not Harrison Ford.)
Right on schedule, the ill-fated vessel weighs anchor. Unfortunately, several thousand nautical miles lie between K-19 and total catastrophe. Padding is imperative to stretch K-19 beyond the limits of a Victory at Sea installment. Harrison Ford does not make short subjects. So, lacking anything better to do, they drill. Fire drills. Missile drills. Flood drills. All of which makes for great soldiering, but pointless storytelling. The last time I paid attention to a fire drill was when it interrupted my breakfast on the Q.E. 2 .
Suspecting that constant drills might not be the ticket to Oscar-night glory, screenwriter Christopher Kyle fills in the gaps with grandstanding speeches about honor and duty and love of country. By the time we reach the well-advertised brink of nuclear destruction in the form of a reactor meltdown that could trigger World War III, Mr. Ford is droning on about the fistfuls of dirt his stern, distant father always carried at sea to “keep him close to the motherland,” and I, for one, was literally too numb to care.
Picking up the pace, several men must go inside the reactor, unprotected, to repair it and avert an explosion. Who will go? What kind of man will step calmly into the jaws of certain death for the sake of his shipmates? This is the sort of drama that has made for great submarine movies in the past. Alas, there’s the rub. Been there, done that. Hence the wristwatches. K-19 is so full of recycled saltwater taffy you wait for the climax wondering if it has already passed.
Mr. Neeson does yeoman duty to acquit himself in trying circumstances, despite hammy dialogue and an unshakable Irish accent. But K-19 is an even odder choice for Harrison Ford (who also served as executive producer). Why choose a vanity project that is predestined to make you look as dopey as possible? He storms around the ship like Popeye pumped with paprika, barking orders and seething with an absurd Slobovian accent and some kind of nonspecific anger, like he’s misplaced his car keys. Somehow all of this angst relates to that stern, distant father I told you about, but with all the gaps in the script, it might just be the result of bad stroganoff. When the captain’s redemption (the whole point of the movie) finally rolls around, it is utterly unconvincing, even with the help of ancient-mariner makeup that makes him look like the contents of Lenin’s tomb.
The real tragedy here is watching an important subject worked over by hacks. The story of K-19 has its own built-in elements of fascination about the names and faces of Cold War casualties-men who served and died only to be discarded by politicians and forgotten by history. (The actual events were officially denied by the old Soviet government before it fell apart.) National Geographic turned the story into its first foray into feature films, yet failed to lend any of its intelligence to the production. What could have been a movie packed with historical significance and nail-gnawing underwater tension ends up little more than a lumbering public-service announcement for the human spirit. With world turmoil reaching apocalyptic proportions, there is little doubt that Hollywood will bring us back to this particular brink again soon. Next time, let’s hope for a more interesting vehicle.
A Forger, a Hit Man and RuPaul
The skills of a calculus major at M.I.T. are required to balance all the formulaic equations in the long-winded heist comedy Who Is Cletis Tout? But it takes no perception at all to see through the motives behind all of the contrived roller-coaster plot twists in a genre flick knocking itself out to be something different than the genre in which it finds itself stuck. From the overactive imagination of a writer-director named Chris Ver Wiel, this dizzying dervish of nonsense is, according to the publicity poop, about “a forger with morals, a hit man with a heart, a feisty artist, a magician with slippery fingers, a crooked coroner, and RuPaul.” A lot of reasons to stay home, if you ask me.
What Who Is Cletis Tout? is really about is anybody’s guess, and some grueling guesswork is the task faced by anyone who sees it. Since it jumps around in time frames so confusing you will scratch your head until it bleeds, so will I. Two thugs are reviewing Deliverance in a coffee shop. One is a hit man called Critical Jim (Tim Allen), who loves old movies so much that he comes by the name naturally. He’s on his way to wipe out a photojournalist named Cletis Tout, who was already supposedly murdered for taking a video of a mobster’s son strangling a hooker to death. Now the mob thinks they got the wrong man, and they’re stalking the real Cletis Tout (Christian Slater). But Mr. Slater is not really Cletis Tout at all: He’s just a forger who took the dead man’s identity when he got out of prison to divert the cops while he searched for a cache of $4.5 million in stolen diamonds. It’s a long story and the hit man is a sucker for plots, so while Mr. Slater sits in a chair in a seedy hotel room waiting for his execution, he plays for time by telling Mr. Allen the sordid details, while we sit through every minute of it in flashbacks. Enter an old jewel robber who steals the gems while disguised as a street magician (Richard Dreyfuss). The old thief hides the treasure and goes to the slammer, where he recruits the young forger as his new partner in crime. The old man dies, the young man forges the signature on the passport of the dead Cletis Tout-and to complicate matters further, he falls for the dead man’s daughter. But when he locates the buried diamonds, they have been landscaped behind prison walls. Now he has to break back into the penitentiary to dig up the jewels and smuggle them out again, with the aid of gardening tools and carrier pigeons. The hit man listens and quotes lines from Rebecca , Double Indemnity and Heaven Can Wait . He’d like to let the phony Cletis Tout free and turn the whole thing into the kind of screenplay that could only be greenlighted in the intellectually bankrupt times we now live in, but the forger has to first prove that he’s not the real Cletis Tout. Time is running out, the gun-toting mob is on its way, the videotape of the strangled hooker is in a locker at Union Station, and the key is in the possession of a blind man. It drags on toward infinity, stuffed to its meager capacity with subplots, mayhem, vicarious thrills and Humphrey Bogart dialogue, all to little avail. It’s a mess. Oh, yes: RuPaul does finally make a guest appearance, but it’s too humid for details.