LOS ANGELES, Dec. 9 (UPI) -- I hadn't been sure if I wanted to see "K-19: The Widowmaker." While I had certainly enjoyed "K-9," Jim Belushi's 1989 police dog comedy, somehow I'd missed sequels "K-10" through "K-18" and wasn't sure I'd be able to pick up the thread.
Everybody else must have been confused, too, because this worthy if grueling Harrison Ford flick sank straight to the bottom of the box office, making only $35 million despite a $100 budget. Now, it's back on DVD ($29.99 list) and VHS (rental only).
It turns out "K-19" actually was the first nuclear powered Soviet submarine to carry nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. This roughly factual film is a strong action drama for male audiences who like scenes of manly men stoically marching into the broken nuclear reactor core to save their shipmates from a meltdown. The impact of the radiation on these young repairmen is so hideous the two women next to me averted their eyes during much of the movie.
I sniffled through the last 10 minutes because I am a sucker for stories of sailors who volunteer to sacrifice themselves, because, well, because it is their duty, and what more needs to be said? So, I found the movie quite emotionally resonant even if this venerable subgenre is starting to show its age.
The benchmark 1981 film "Das Boot" detailed the precision and professionalism of the German submariners in World War II. The main novelty of "K-19" is that it documents the pervasive incompetence of the Soviets' chaotic "planned" economy, which couldn't even deliver basic safety gear to the sub before its launch. The submarine's story serves as a metaphor for much of Russia's grim but occasionally glorious history. Corruption, stupidity and negligence unleash initial disaster. This elicits suffering, endurance, desperate improvisation and unsurpassed bravery.
Even director Kathryn Bigelow, though, can't seem to come up with any terribly new ways to depict the claustrophobia and clutter of life under the sea.
Bigelow is one of James Cameron's numerous tough-babe ex-wives. She brings to her macho movies something similar to what Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde added to rock music a generation ago -- the point of view of a woman who can deeply identify with the masculine virtues and vices but stands apart from them.
Described in brief, Bigelow's 1991 cult classic "Point Break" sounds just plain embarrassing. That tale of surfing bank robbers featured three of Hollywood's least cerebral actors: Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze and Gary Busey. Yet, this kinetic mediation on adrenaline addiction was perhaps the most refreshing of the "Lethal Weapon"-era of action films.
Liam Neeson ("Schindler's List") plays K-19's humane and popular captain who is busted down to second in command for putting his crew's welfare ahead of rushing this high-tech but slapdash bucket of bolts out to sea. Party apparatchiks install a communist martinet -- Ford -- as the new captain. With frigid demeanor, he drives the men through merciless drills in which many are injured and the sub is taken to the edge of destruction.
The submariners grumble the new captain only received this assignment because he married a Politburo member's niece. Psychologically, he still lives under the shadow of his formidable father, a naval hero of the Bolshevik Revolution who later died in Stalin's Gulag.
Obviously, Ford, who just turned 60, is too old to play this unformed, untested officer. The real captain was 35. If he had been as old as Ford in 1961, he would have been in his 40s during the war for national survival against Hitler when, no doubt, his mettle would have been thoroughly probed, no matter whom he had married.
Note that Ford's vastly popular sly wit and rugged humanity are completely missing from the first half of the movie, when the script let Ford earn his $25 million pay check. The captain is a dour, humorless Marxist ideologue. Still, the magnificence of his crew's response to catastrophe eventually melts the iceberg.
The crabbed minimalism of Ford's early acting makes his later tributes to his men all the more moving, such as when the formerly rigid communist tells the first man heading into the reactor, "May God be with you."
"K-19" is reasonably accurate in its history. The accident, the repair job and the tension between the two top officers happened. Some of the later plot twists are contrivances but they aren't hugely implausible.
The biggest distortion is the movie's claim that a meltdown could have set off the three 1.4 megaton nuclear warheads and that their blast might have stampeded a terrified America into nuking Moscow.
In reality, according to National Geographic, which is one of the producers of "K-19," a nuclear explosion was not a concern. The worst-case scenario was a "thermal explosion," which "would be unlikely to start a war."
Rated PG-13 for horrifying scenes of radiation sickness, but nothing else.