Fifty-megaton explosions have become the movie equivalent of White Castle burgers. They’re tasty and satisfyingly identical, and they always leave you feeling a bit greasy. It’s not every day, or even every year, that a movie features explosions that could be described as creative feats, but U-571, the excitingly taut and kinetic new World War II submarine thriller, has a sequence that took me back to the days when movie detonations truly felt as if they rocked the world.
We’re on a German submarine, just off the northeastern U.S. seaboard, but the sailors aren’t Nazis. They’re Americans, led by the gutsy yet untested Lieut. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey), who stormed their way aboard the enemy U-boat and killed most of the crew, all for the purpose of stealing a top secret encryption code. The daredevil mission was going fine until the Americans’ own submarine, hovering a few hundred meters away, was ambushed and sunk by a German vessel. Our heroes are now trapped aboard the leaky, damaged foreign sub, with no radio, a faulty weapons chute, and a grand total of one torpedo. Their most immediate problem, however, is the German destroyer that’s lurking somewhere above them, blindly dropping depth charges — otherwise known as really, really loud and scary underwater bombs.
The devices look harmless, like medium-size oil barrels, but there are dozens of them, and as they sink slowly into the water, going off — boom! — at random intervals — BOOM! — we’re drawn right into what the men on board are feeling: split-second panic and cold sweat. If you’re lucky enough to see U-571 in a theater equipped with a first-rate sound system, those vast, echoey booms thunder like an oceanic apocalypse. The explosions are terrifying, and thrilling, too, but what’s even more potent are the inky silences between them. This is a movie in which frenzy and noise are never more suspenseful than when they’re interlaced with quiet.
U-571 is the second major feature directed by Jonathan Mostow, who represents the return of something that I’d feared was gone for good: the inspired genre magician. Here, as in his previous film, the Kurt Russell highway-paranoia thriller Breakdown (1997), Mostow, working with his screenwriting partner, Sam Montgomery (as well as David Ayer), takes characters and situations that are, if anything, overly familiar and charges them with fresh volts of dramatic surprise. Watching U-571, you can always sense where the action is headed, but you’re never sure just how it’s going to get there. The movie wastes no time letting us know that it’s willing to kill off key characters, to leave our heroes in a lurch and then dig them in deeper, and deeper still. Mostow, it’s clear, was heavily influenced by the leaky-rivet, nuts-and-bolts existential physicality of Das Boot (1982), Wolfgang Petersen’s celebrated German U-boat thriller, perhaps the first World War II movie realistic enough to imagine a submarine as a giant yet claustrophobic sardine can. Like Das Boot, U-571 depicts underwater warriors as cocooned and vulnerable, sleuthing through the sea with only an eggshell of tin to separate themselves from death.
This, however, is the rollicking American version. The setting may be “serious,” and scrupulous in its historical detail, but the filmmaking is strictly for kicks — we might be watching Dying Hard to Save Private Ryan. Mostow is a junkie for narrative, and U-571 has been designed to leap from one suspense gambit to the next (a stowaway enemy sailor, a battery that dies at just the wrong moment). The movie is filled with grandly ominous images of sinking ships, zooming surveillance planes, and torpedoes that propel their way through the water like skinny metal sharks. When the submarine has to dive 400 meters beneath the surface to avoid detection, you can practically feel the water pressure crushing in on the sailors.
There’s an element of dread-soaked comedy — and, it must be said, of unabashed gimmickry — to the director’s orchestrated high-risk sweepstakes. Still, Mostow, like Howard Hawks, has a knack for using action to reveal his characters’ inner moxie. Most of the performers in U-571 have been cast subtly against type, an effect that’s only enhanced by the severity of their military haircuts, and we’re held, in scene after scene, by the emotion in their faces: the husky authority of David Keith, the surprising tremulousness of Jon Bon Jovi (completely unrecognizable without his rock-dandy mane), the prickliness of Harvey Keitel, and the tersely woeful heroism of Matthew McConaughey. The entire movie is structured as a test of Lieutenant Tyler’s leadership — does he have the mettle to take charge? — but by the end, we’re really watching McConaughey finally earn his stripes as a star. He’s a face of stoic courage amid the movie’s sound and fury. A-