- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2000

The password best matched with "U-571" is "explosive." Indeed, orchestrating depth charges as they threaten to shatter submarine hulls and terrorize cast members and spectators proves the favorite stylistic weapon in the arsenal of director Jonathan Mostow and his associates.

Although the submarine service remains a compelling camera subject, this return to the naval battles of the North Atlantic in 1942 takes such pride in explosive sound effects that it's almost a thriller in which listening outranks watching.

The pretext might not require so much bang if the script were more attentive to ensemble relationships in close quarters.

You're left with a sense of skeletal and makeshift characterization, in which midcourse crises are ascribed much too frequently to a lurking but essentially expendable German saboteur and all locomotion depends on one gritty sailor in a flooded engine room.

Reliably diverting and sometimes stirring, the movie begins as a kind of homage to Wolfgang Werner Petersen's "Das Boot," introducing us to the crew of the title ship as it patrols hunting grounds in May 1942.

Since the Royal Navy would have been providing more active submarine resistance than the U.S. Navy at that time, Mr. Mostow stretches probability somewhat by assigning a mission impossible to an American crew, commanded by Bill Paxton, who seems to have wounded the pride of his executive officer, Matthew McConaughey, by failing to recommend him for an immediate command of his own just before the movie begins.

Fate prevents this conflict from being resolved man to man, but it allows the McConaughey character, Lt. Andrew Tyler, to prove himself when the chips are down. At least in theory. I think I would be happier if Harvey Keitel's crusty Chief Klough were chosen to make the tough decisions.

Mr. Keitel won me over despite a certain perverse preference at the outset: I had hoped to discover him mangling a German accent as the commander of U-571.

Mr. Paxton's ship, S-33, is rigged to resemble a U-boat in order to rendezvous with 571, which is expecting a resupply vessel and carries a strategic bit of cargo, a redesigned Enigma coding machine that could play havoc with Allied intelligence.

Two spooks from Naval Intelligence, David Keith as a Marine officer named Coonan and Jake Weber as a Navy lieutenant named Hirsch, join the crew as experts in things Enigmatic.

The initial buildup of suspense triggers an effective setback soon after the rendezvous occurs. The result leaves a depleted group of Americans stranded on U-571.

They have the Enigma, but can they elude German or Allied ships that might be tempted to attack them?

The Enigma doesn't seem nearly as valuable in context as torpedoes that hit their targets with stunning timeliness. The last one activated produces such imposing destruction that you wonder if the mission was always ill-conceived.

Perhaps it's the U-571's monster torpedoes rather than the Enigma that needs to be studied and neutralized as soon as possible.

Given the double vulnerability, it's a little disappointing to discover that the captured U-571 doesn't have to outmaneuver and elude "friendly fire" as well as the pesky German destroyer that systematically batters it, forcing Mr. McConaughey to dive way beyond the specs and almost pay for it.


TITLE: "U-571"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity and graphic violence, in a setting of World War II naval combat)

CREDITS: Directed by Jonathan Mostow

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes


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