Harrison Ford, K-19: The Widowmaker
Credit: K-19: George Kraychyk

The contest is over: K-19: The Widowmaker is, without a doubt, the worst title that any would-be blockbuster has been saddled with this summer. What, one wonders, could a movie with that ugly, incoherent moniker possibly be about? Is it a mountain-climbing epic? A sequel to the 1989 James Belushi-German shepherd comedy? The deeply moving tale of a new kitchen cleanser that leaves your counters sparkling and husbandless?

Actually, it’s a Cold War submarine spectacular, but even if you’ve seen the heavy-duty ads for ”K-19: The Widowmaker,” you may be in for a surge of disappointment when you learn what the movie is actually about. It’s a jolt, for instance, to discover that Harrison Ford, who looks as if he hasn’t had a mischievous thought in three years (his lower lip is frozen in mid-glower), has been cast as a slow-talking, humorless, stiffly patriotic captain in the Soviet navy in 1961. Not exactly a guy, on the charisma scale, to rival the actor’s swaggering Bill Clinton-as-demigod-jock Commander-in-Chief in ”Air Force One.” Ford, playing this dour Russian martinet, hunches his shoulders, reins in his cocky agility, and speaks with an accent so slight it’s like the speech equivalent of a fake mustache. His costar, Liam Neeson, plays an equally grim Soviet navy captain, one whose command is officially usurped by Ford. In case that doesn’t sound exciting enough, you should be aware that these two strapping stars are surrounded by a crew of largely unknown actors in big fur hats playing many other stern-faced members of the Soviet navy.

Ford and Neeson tussle for power, glaring at each other across the cable-tentacled corridors of the gargantuan sub, which has been stockpiled with nuclear missiles. In the course of its maiden mission, which is to spook the United States by test-firing one of the missiles in the North Atlantic, everything that can possibly go wrong does. A title informs us that ”K-19” is based on an actual incident, the discovery of which was so top secret that it couldn’t be revealed for nearly three decades. The audience, primed for some heretofore obscure Cold War catastrophe as dramatic in its way as the Cuban Missile Crisis, sits back, waiting for the countdown to the true-life brink of Armageddon to begin.

The countdown arrives, sort of, but mostly it sputters and lurches and blows fuses. Directed by the talented kinetic stylist Kathryn Bigelow, whose films (”Strange Days,” ”Point Break,” ”Near Dark”) almost always turn into a fusion of the ”visionary” and the banal, ”K-19” is a movie of hurtling technical prowess, yet its craftsmanship has a showy, purposeless clatter. It’s no longer novel, as it was 20 years ago when Wolfgang Petersen made ”Das Boot,” for a filmmaker to send his camera rocketing through the claustrophobic, tubular machine tangle of a submarine’s inner workings. The big dread-at-150-fathoms sequence in which the sub descends to the ocean’s depths, the water pressure building until the shell creaks and moans, has been done one too many times.

What’s really needed is a story with some sizzle, but Bigelow, in ”K-19,” can’t seem to decide whether she’s making a shoot-the-works underwater rouser, like ”U-571” or ”Crimson Tide,” or a lofty historical message movie that hits us with the breaking news that the arms race was, in every sense, a poisonous game.

The missile that gets fired is just a MacGuffin. The real action begins when the sub’s nuclear reactor cooling system springs a random leak that threatens to inflate the core temperature to 1,000 degrees — which would detonate the weapons on board and, theoretically, prove the suicidal opening joust to World War III. How can the leak be contained? There’s only one way: Dozens of the men must go into the core and repair it, exposing themselves to sickening doses of radiation. The volunteers enter the danger zone in 10-minute shifts, emerging from the iridescent blue water with their faces singed and bloody, their organs heaving. The physical agony is vividly evoked (despite some mediocre makeup), yet, as insensitive as it may sound to ask, why, exactly, are we being invited to suffer through this horror? It’s like watching a thriller about the cleanup of Chernobyl.

The irradiated crewmates, of course, embody the essence of self-sacrificial valor. For much of the movie, they stand in noble contrast to Ford’s Captain Vostrikov, the kind of Communist military fanatic who will risk his men’s lives in order to stoke their fighting spirit. For a while, the air crackles with tension between Ford and the more humane-seeming Neeson, who dares to challenge him. The rivalry, however, gets defused in a sudden reversal of sympathy that will leave you gasping with surprise, since it makes virtual hash of everything we’ve been told about one of the key characters. It also defuses the film’s melodrama, as any conflict gets swept aside in a post-Cold War salute to the Russians in all of their comradely duty and loyalty to the motherland. Will this ironic tribute to the authoritarian spirit of our former enemies play in terror-minded America? ”K-19” may not hold a lot of water as a submarine epic, but it holds even less when it turns into an elegiacally soggy ”Saving Private Ryanovich.”

K-19: The Widowmaker
  • Movie
  • 139 minutes