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‘Phantom’ review: Harris, Duchovny draw human drama on submarine

‘Phantom’ review: Harris, Duchovny draw human drama on submarine
Ed Harris, far right, portrays a Russian submarine captain on his final mission to hand over a vessel to the Chinese in the Cold War-era thriller “Phantom.”
(RCR Distribution)

Based on true events, in which a Russian submarine likely went rogue during the Cold War of the late 1960s and nearly set off an international nuclear incident, “Phantom” is a modest thriller propelled by a strong cast and straightforward storytelling.

Yet there are a few ground rules. There is a diversity of American accents and diction among the supposedly Russian crew — including actors Ed Harris, David Duchovny, William Fichtner, Lance Henriksen, Johnathon Schaech and Kip Pardue — so don’t expect any Boris Badenov/Yakov Smirnoff-style speaking. It’s a little disconcerting for the film’s first few scenes, but once the story settles in the Russians-without-accents decision actually helps to draw out the human drama in the story, giving it a more universal feel and allowing the shifting loyalties and tricky motivations of the action to open up beyond seeming like just Russian in-fighting.

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Harris is an about-to-retire submarine captain sent out on a mysterious final mission aboard an old ship that is about to be given over to the Chinese. A small group of rogue ideologues onboard wants to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. that will then spark a war with China.

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Writer and director Todd Robinson wrote the screenplay to the 1996 Ridley Scott picture “White Squall,” and he includes a thank you to the late Tony Scott in the end credits of “Phantom.” Robinson’s film shares the Scott brothers’ interest in exploring the bonds of men and the ways in which action and genre tropes can be a part of a film’s larger storytelling strategy. For a story like this, there could hardly be better folks to claim as influences and points of reference.

With most of the story confined to the tight quarters of the submarine, the film isn’t exactly an action picture, though there are a few close-quarters shoot-outs and fistfights. The depiction of submarine warfare captures what a strange manner of combat it is, with an unlikely level of anxious waiting.

In its best moments, the film works as something more like a straight drama, perhaps most accurately described as a dramatically charged thriller, with the characters played by Harris and Duchovny matching wits. “Phantom” is a relatively tight, gripping story told with efficiency that makes room for its fine roster of actors to explore old-fashioned ideas on honor and loyalty.

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‘Phantom’

MPAA rating: Rated R for violence

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: In general release

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mark.olsen@latimes.com

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