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K-19 and Bourne IdentityK-19 and Bourne Identity

Teenagers might not realize it, but Harrison Ford used to be a fine actor. He made a memorable entrance in American Graffiti, was the best thing about Star Wars, and shined in smaller movies like Witness and Blade Runner. And when he took out his whip in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he became a genuine movie star.

A lot has changed since those days, though. In the last several years, Ford has starred in a string of mediocre, even embarrassing flicks--crap like Six Days Seven Nights, Air Force One, Random Hearts, and What Lies Beneath. What's worse is he was often the low point of those miserable movies. Practically defining the term "phoning it in," he appeared to be sleepwalking through every scene. So when I heard he was starring as a Russian in a movie with the subtitle "The Widowmaker," I was not especially
enthusiastic.

Surprise, surprise. K-19: The Widowmaker is a tense, taut submarine thriller, and Ford is more than adequate.  He plays Captain Alexei Vostrikov, a by-the-books commander assigned to prepare a new nuclear missile submarine for its top-secret mission. The sub is still being built when Alexei arrives; and as the movie's opening scene portrays, the vessel is far from being seaworthy. But the Soviets are nervous about the Americans' nuclear superiority and feel the need to demonstrate their own power. The K-19 is their answer, and it's a message that can't wait. 

Adding to Alexei's difficulties, he's taking over for the popular Captain Mikhail Polenin (played by Liam Neeson). People skills aren't Alexei's strong point, as he demonstrates early when he fires a skilled reactor
officer for being drunk on the job and then replaces him with a kid just out of school (played by Peter Sarsgaard). The sailors grumble but don't take it any farther than that. Though they don't respect Alexei (who has a well-deserved reputation for being dictatorial), they're willing to go along because of their trust in Mikhail, who's a good soldier and understands the chain of command.

That trust is undermined, however, when Alexei, in a fit of hubris, sends his men on a series of ever more difficult drills that test both them and the sub. These scenes are particularly impressive for how much suspense they instill in the audience. Though we know (since the movie is barely 30 minutes old) that the sub will survive, Kathryn Bigelow's direction and Walter Murch's extraordinary editing create tension and fear. Even when the drills are over, there's still a lingering sense of uncertainty--what will Alexei do next? will his men follow him or revolt? and how does the deposed captain Mikhail, who's now acting as first mate, feel?

There hasn't been any doubt about Liam Neeson's acting chops. He may have made a misstep in Phantom Menace, but he's more than made up for it with Schindler's List, Michael Collins, and many others. Here, he provides a nice foil to Ford's blustery commander. Standing ram-rod straight, he personifies a man who doesn't agree with his ranking officer and yet must abide by what that officer decides. But what will he do if the men under him mutiny? This possibility becomes even greater when the sub's mechanical deficiencies manifest themselves. Not only is the situation a test of Alexei's command but of the men's bravery and willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

I must admit I'm a push-over for movies that focus on the theme of sacrifice and bravery, but K-19 is a nice example of the genre. The story by Louis Nowra and screenplay by Christopher Kyle is crisp and, except for some maudlin moments at the end, refreshingly devoid of Hollywood schmaltz. For some folks, rooting for the Soviets in 1961 might seem odd, but those concerns are soon outweighed by the difficult situation the men find themselves in.

Bigelow (Point Break) moves the movie along with a strong pace and takes advantage of the submarine's claustrophobic quarters to create powerful compositions. When Ford and Neeson argue, which is frequent, their close proximity to each other raises the stakes even higher. The supporting cast doesn't have a lot to do but look scruffy and Soviet. On the negative side, the music by Klaus Badelt (a protege of Hans Zimmer) is over-the-top in ways the story largely avoids. Finally, I won't spoil anything, but I want to warn the weak-of-stomach that the movie contains more than its share of gross moments. They're not gratuitous, but they're not easy to watch, either.

What's most satisfying about K-19, though, is seeing Harrison Ford trying again. He doesn't have the charisma he did in his 20s and 30s, but he shows here that he can still carry a movie when wants to.   

In the better-late-than-never department, let me also recommend The Bourne Identity. I snuck into a screening of it last weekend and was thoroughly entertained. Matt Damon isn't exactly my idea of a super-secret agent, but he's a fine actor. More importantly, the story is exciting and moves along with verve.
There's rarely a dull moment, but the movie doesn't descend into cartoonish action/violence like most action movies do these days (I'm talking to you, Sum of All Fears). And Franka Potente as Damon's driver/love interest has real screen presence. This won't surprise anyone who saw Run Lola Run, but it's nice to see that she wasn't a one-hit wonder. If Universal Studios wants to make a sequel to this one, I wouldn't complain, and I can't say that about many of this summer's blockbusters.   

J. Robert Parks 7/19/2002


 

 
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