In sports and the military, “professionalism” describes people who go about their work with a calm, dispassionate efficiency — no fuss, no panic when things go wrong, few mistakes, little attention paid to the odds, the chance for glory.
You can apply that word to movie actors, too. The great cast of character actors of “Phantom,” a solid Cold War-era submarine thriller of modest ambitions, never reveals that this isn’t “The Hunt for Red October” or “K-19: The Widowmaker.” Ed Harris, William Fichtner, David Duchovny and Co. show up, hit their marks, give their lines some punch and play the heck out of this B-picture, which could easily have been just a prop (a submarine) in search of a movie.
Writer-director Todd Robinson (He scripted “White Squall”) has cooked up an alternative bit of Cold War mythology. In 1968, a tense time when U.S. and Soviet subs were tangling and occasionally sinking, a Soviet sub went missing. Here’s a far-fetched explanation.
Harris plays the retiring Soviet captain taking the B-67 out to sea on one last cruise before they sell her to the Chinese and put him out to pasture. She’s a “smoker,” an aged diesel sub in an age of “atom smasher” powered boats. He’s the son of a hero of the service, and is haunted by his past.
Does he believe in omens? His hastily assembled crew drops stuff while they’re frantically loading the boat. Things break. Oh, and his commanding officer (Lance Henriksen, another old pro) shoots himself as the B-67 clears the harbor.
On board is a nuclear-armed missile, some sort of experimental gadget and a couple of heavy-handed security guys, led by Bruni (David Duchovny) to supervise the testing of it.
William Fichtner is the loyal second in command. Johnathon Schaech re-invents himself as a conflicted political officer.
Nobody feigns an accent. Nobody calls anybody else “comrade.” They just go about the business of putting an aged, crowded killing machine through its paces en route to the Pacific, where nerves, loyalties and history will be put to the test.
Characters spend much of the movie explaining submarine tactics to the “guests” on board, who apparently have never seen a submarine movie. (“Sound is the enemy of a submarine.”)
They diagram Kremlin politics and conspiracy theories, and gripe about the Americans — always trailing them, always on watch, “with their snouts in the trough.”
Robinson manages some suspense, but the thriller’s ticking clock is a weak one. He’s sloppy at solving script problems, giving a character in the submarine claustrophobia (!?) so that another character must handle a difficult task.
But the cast never lets on that this alternative history (think Glomar Explorer) isn’t the most dazzling riff on the Soviet-era “Silent Service.” Captain to boson, Harris to Henriksen, this Hollywood crew is too professional for that.