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Movie Review: 'U-571'

Friday, April 21, 2000

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

If the movie takes place aboard a submarine, certain archetypal scenes must occur. The latest film in the genre, "U-571," is no exception.


Rating: PG-13, for war violence

Players: Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel

Director: Jonathan Mostow

Web site:

Critic's call: 2 1/2 stars


You know the drill. Submarine and enemy destroyer play a deadly cat-and-mouse game. Red light bathes the inside of the sub as the captain whispers orders to the crew. The men hold their breath and look worried as depth charges explode nearby, shaking the ship and seemingly causing every other valve to spring a leak. The damaged sub sinks to a depth beyond the limit of its gauges, and the hull groans as the water pressure threatens to crush it like a tin can.

You can call them cliches, but "U-571" director Jonathan Mostow demonstrated his ability to breathe life into all-too-familiar movie situations in his 1997 thriller "Breakdown," which was the story of a man, his kidnapped wife and a lot of big, nasty trucks.

"U-571" pulls you into the action right from the start, as a Nazi U-boat torpedoes an Allied ship only to be crippled by depth charges. Mostow makes us share the tension with the crew, thus humanizing the enemy -- and then leaves them stranded as he cuts to an American submarine crew on shore leave. The plot will pivot on such turnabouts.

The good guys are called back early to go out on a special mission -- to board the damaged U-boat and make off with its Enigma code machine, which would allow the Allies to decipher German messages and wreak havoc on Nazi forces. But Berlin must never know. The codes would be changed, making the exercise meaningless.

Naturally, things don't go exactly as planned, leaving the Americans in a battle for survival in a hostile environment both inside and outside their cramped quarters.

The screenplay, written by Mostow with Sam Montgomery and David Ayer, sets out to create a character arc for the film's lead, Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey). He's been passed over for his own command because his commander, Captain Dahlgren (Bill Paxton), doesn't think he's ready.

Tyler does have a few things to learn, it turns out. The grizzled veteran of the crew, Chief Klough (Harvey Keitel), tries to show him the way, as old salts always do in movies like this. The usual component of able seamen fill out the crew, including radioman Emmett (Jon Bon Jovi), cook Eddie (T.C. Carson), mission commander and novice submariner Hirsch (Jake Weber) and a bunch of guys called Griggs, Rabbit, Trigger, Tank and Wentz, names that suggest their functions and their generic personalities.

In other words, the characters take second fiddle to the action here. The biggest disappointment, though, is a series of events that don't ring true, especially because the rest of the movie works so hard to create a feeling of authenticity that, in large part, contributes to its effectiveness.

The German submarine was stranded in part because its engines didn't work. How come they do at the critical moment, BEFORE someone fixes them? Can torpedoes really scrape against the side of a ship without going off? Why would the Germans attack what appears to be one of their own ships? Why does the cook know how to operate most of the ship's vital systems?

Does any of this matter? Probably not. "U-571" may spring a few leaks but its taut action sequences plug up most of the holes.

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