K19: The Widowmaker
starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson
3 stars

by Stephen Notley

K-19: The Widowmaker is a competent, satisfactory submarine movie. Not too terrible, not too great, it's the kind of movie they invented 3 stars for.

The biggest change from the typical submarine movie, K-19's big innovation, is that is doesn't feature any scenes where everybody gets terribly quiet while a sonar pings overhead. In fact, there's no combat at all -- no torpedoes launched, no depth charges avoided, no "Dive! Dive!" to avoid a pursuer (though there is a "Dive! Dive!" scene).

Nope, K-19's problems as a submarine are all internal. You might call it "The Unluckiest Submarine Ever." First, the big Soviet masters are so horny to try a submarine-launched missile test, they insist on sending K-19 out in a state of total disrepair (kinda like the Enterprise in Star Trek V). As if that wasn't bad enough, they demote crew-beloved captain Liam Neeson to executive officer and make stuffy Harrison Ford the new captain. And of course, Harrison Ford is the kind of perfectionist jerk who forces the crew to do drill after drill after drill.

We all know what happens when a tired, distracted crew are forced to do too many drills; eventually, somebody's gonna get his hand crushed. This is one unlucky boat. And if there's one thing you don't want to have on a really unlucky boat, it's a nuclear reactor.

It might seem rather counter-intuitive, Americans making a submarine movie that casts Soviets as the heroes. They make up for it by making the whole movie a big fat metaphor for collapsing communism, complete with stupid orders from the top, good men on down trying to do their duty, rickety everything, and nuclear disaster. 

On the plus side, K-19 does a pretty good job of showing that, when it comes down to it, your average Russian little guy is capable of some pretty astounding acts of courage and deprivation. 

K-19 is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who dated James Cameron a decade ago and once made a pretty cool hardass vampire movie called Near Dark. Since then she's been failing to live up to Near Dark's promise with movies like Point Break, Blue Steel and Strange Days. Still, she's always had a good hand with the craft of her films, and she knows how to tell her story so it's tense, particularly some frankly grim reactor repair scenes.

Submarine movies always gotta have officers butting heads, and Neeson and Ford turn out to be pretty convincing butters. Luckily  Harrison Ford comes off a lot better in the film than he does in the trailer, with his sad-pig version of a Russian accent. The bad accent doesn't do too much damage in the movie, thankfully, because Ford's Captain Vostrikov is the kind of guy who gives orders and then glares to get them followed, and Ford still glares like he used to (though it's hard to imagine what they think he's gonna be able to do in Indy 4). Neeson isn't trying too hard in the accent department either, but he sticks up for his men like he should, and between him and Ford, duty gets a big ol' workout.

As I say, a functional, workmanlike movie, one you could go to with your parents. Nothing too fancy, but some changes in the submarine formula and a story you can reasonably care about. Three stars, I'd say.