U-571 (review)

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Submarine Sandwich, with Cheese

You don’t need to have seen the trailer for U-571, which lays out the entire movie for you, to be able to predict the major plot points a nautical mile away. An unintentional parody of war movies, chock full of clichés both hoary and brand-spanking new, U-571 is nevertheless good clean silly fun, though I’m sure writer/director Jonathan Mostow was aiming for high drama, not high cheese.

The year is 1942, which I believe is actually mandated by the Hollywood Dubya Dubya II Film Code. The crew of the American submarine S-33 has its shore leave abruptly canceled when a distress signal from German U-boat U-571, stranded in the North Atlantic, is intercepted by American intelligence. U-571 (this is a Guy Movie — names are for sissies) is known to be carrying an Enigma code machine — if the Allies can capture the Enigma without the enemy’s knowledge, coded German communications will be an open book for the Allies. So the S-33 is sent to steal the Enigma and sink the German sub before Axis help can arrive.
But lo! All is not well aboard the S-33. Captain Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton: Mighty Joe Young, A Simple Plan) has just denied his executive officer — his second in command, Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey: EDtv, Contact) — the promotion he so badly wanted. Tyler is not ready for command, Dahlgren tells him flat out. But we’ve seen Captain Picard give this same lecture on the hard responsibilities of command on Star Trek: The Next Generation, so we know fate is gonna deal Tyler precisely the das boot in the pants he needs to learn this the hard way. It’s utterly unsurprising — and hence it gives away nothing to reveal this — that poor old Paxton will be sacrificed to McConaughey’s character arc. It’s not the stalwart Paxton’s fault that when his Dahlgren all but grunts, “Go on without me,” to Tyler, it’s funny instead of poignant and inspiring: we’ve seen this character dynamic too many times before to be moved by it.

Call this Titanic for guys: Tyler watches in horror, from the safety of U-571, as S-33 sinks in flames in the middle of the North Atlantic, but his heart will go on. With his Away Team, he commandeers the German sub and leads his men — whose respect he will earn, slowly but surely… but you knew that already — through WWIIish encounters with German destroyers, against survivors of U-571’s crew wielding cool retro Nazi machine guns, and through heartwarming male-bonding stories about someone’s “Pop.” Stuff will blow up real good; characters will have names like Rabbit, Trigger, Tank; men will be shot in the gut (ouch); actors will overact; and democracy and apple pie will win in the end. It’s enough to make you want to snap a salute at the closing credits.

Credit to Mostow (who made the underrated Breakdown) for updating some of the conventions of the genre — even if they still evoke chuckles of recognition. Apparently, it’s no longer enough to simply show a picture of your girl back home to find yourself marked for death in a war movie — now a guy has to marry the girl and be recalled to his ship before he’s had a chance to consummate the union. That’s pretty funny stuff, though it isn’t meant to be. And Mostow gets an award for New Use for the Token Black Character in the S-33’s chef, Eddie (T.C. Carson). Would a black soldier have been posted on a sub in the still-segregated Navy of the 40s? Would such a low-ranking enlisted man of any color have had the nerve to talk as plainly as Eddie does to his executive officer? (Watch Eddie tell Tyler that he “just needs to be patient” to get that promotion he wants.) Who cares? Eddie — who is obviously too poor to afford a last name — is sassy and plain-spoken, like uptight white folk never can be.

U-571‘s cast is mostly notable for the things they do not do: McConaughey does not play the bongos naked, though he approaches the character of Tyler with the smirking smarminess we’ve come to expect from him. Jon Bon Jovi, as Lt. Emmett, does not sing and toss his hair around. Harvey Keitel (Fairy Tale: A True Story, Cop Land) as Chief Klough is not moved to drop trou for the camera — thank goodness for small favors. And in a film where lots of yelling and numerous loud explosions are the order of the day, Jake Weber (Meet Joe Black, Dangerous Beauty) as Naval Intelligence officer Lt. Hirsch steals his scenes by underplaying them — here is an actor who knows the dramatic value of standing still and staying calm. He deserves a better movie than this.

Still, moving performances are not what U-571 is about. When Mostow’s camera lingers, early in the film, on a shot of boxes with “Danger Explosives” stenciled across their sides, you know exactly what to expect. It’s only a matter of time before U-571 shows up on TBS’s Movies for Guys Who Like Movies.

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