By Ty Burr
Updated October 06, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s been a while since we’ve had a B-movie director of Jonathan Mostow’s caliber. Call him a B+ director, actually: 1997’s Breakdown was a taut, unpretentious road thriller in which yuppie Kurt Russell has to find his inner macho man in order to rescue his kidnapped wife. Similarly, Mostow’s second feature, U-571, is a pure genre play — a submarine flick — and it’s almost as good as his first. The formula (bunch of guys sweating it out in a tin can) is simple, and beyond setting up one novel twist, in which our true-blue WWII Navy heroes find themselves aboard a crippled Nazi U-boat, Mostow lets narrative drive and characterizations — not directorial flourishes — do the heavy lifting.

So while ironically minded viewers might giggle when Harvey Keitel’s chief petty officer barks, ”Dive! Dive!” it’s soon clear that the actor is playing it straight. So, too, does lead Matthew McConaughey leave the bongos at home, for a controlled performance as a lieutenant who finally gets to test his mettle. If U-571 isn’t as light on its feet as Breakdown — those U-boats are damn hard to maneuver — the hull still holds. Howard Hawks would be proud. B+ (what else?)