Todd Robinson’s Phantom is the definition of middling cinema: a movie that’s watchable and professionally made, with an often literate and an occasionally thoughtful screenplay. But then there’s the other side of Phantom — the one that veers into goofy, mawkish and confusing; the one that lacks any real emotional resonance or dramatic tension. For every step the film takes in the right direction, there’s one where it stumbles — resulting in a movie that’s harmless, yet airless and forgettable.
Phantom is little more than a Cold War submarine thriller, taking the peculiar approach of following a bunch of Soviet sailors with occasionally distracting American accents. According to Robinson, the idea is to humanize these men, making them less Cold War boogeymen and more relatable to the average American. More likely, it was to avoid the inevitable silly Russian accents (even though Lance Henriksen with a Boris Badenov accent would’ve been worth the price of admission alone), but it’s ultimately a lose-lose situation since, either way, you end up with a distraction.
Regardless, we get Ed Harris as Demi, our requisite grizzled sub captain, on one last voyage before retirement — the sole purpose of which is to assist government agent Bruni (David Duchovny) in the testing of a top secret piece of equipment called “The Phantom.” The Phantom has the ability to record and mock the sounds of other seafaring vessels, giving their submarine the ability to confuse enemy ships. Unfortunately for just about everyone, Bruni’s sole plan is to overtake Demi, use The Phantom to attack America with a nuclear warhead and throw the world into World War III.
Demi — who has a guilt-ridden, dishonorable past — must defeat Bruni by both physically and mentally overmatching him. For the most part, the movie is intelligently constructed, though Robinson has an unfortunate habit of leaving plot threads dangling and simply skipping over or rushing through important points in the story. Continuing Phantom’s habit of unevenness, the dialogue is often crisp (it helps that it’s being delivered by a solid — though unspectacular — cast), but occasionally regresses into the realm of corny. Even the climax is wobbly, at first being smartly constructed, but then devolving into a silly final scene that’s unduly weird and laughably sentimental.
But Phantom’s greatest sin is never giving us a reason to be invested. Since we’re all aware that the world was never plummeted into a nuclear holocaust in the ‘60s, there’s a distinct lack of dramatic tension. The real kicker is a lack of emotional resonance in these stock characters — something that’s needed for the film’s big, emotional payoff to work. In all, Phantom is a bit too drab and a bit too much on the wrong side of mediocrity to get interested in. Rated R for violence.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Asheville Cinema 14, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande