Todd Robinson, the writer and director of "Phantom," makes a daring choice with this Cold War thriller by casting American actors, and some very fine ones, as the crew of a Soviet submarine.
Think about that for a moment. The uniforms are Russian, the vodka labels printed in Cyrillic, but Ed Harris, as captain Dmitri Zubov, speaks crystal-clear English. Ditto for David Duchovny, who plays a possible KGB operative named Bruni but sounds like his Hank Moody character from Showtime's "Californication." One actor, Julian Adams, plays the navigator Bavenod with a broad Southern twang. He might be from Georgia, but not the one near Azerbaijan.
Well, that's one way to avoid the fakey foreign accents usually heard in movies of this stripe, and it certainly obviates the need for subtitles. As a result, though, watching "Phantom" feels like driving in England -- a brain-taxing exercise in reflex reversal. And unfortunately, "Phantom" is a challenge that offers zero rewards.
Inspired by the supposedly true story of a vanished Soviet sub, "Phantom" spins a tale of what might have happened. Robinson (an Adelphi University alum) clearly did his research -- the dialogue is riddled with submarine jargon like "up bubble" and "ping" -- and his basic plot, though far-fetched, at least passes the genre smell test. (Hint: Think nukes.) The all-male cast, including a very good William Fichtner as Zubov's loyal executive officer, does its best to ratchet up the small-space tension.
The main problem, though, is that "Phantom" is almost completely incomprehensible. Scene for scene, it's nearly impossible to tell what's happening, why everyone is yelling (or totally calm), what those wires lead to or where those rifles suddenly came from. Glimmers of horror -- is it a ghost ship? -- appear early, then disappear, and the maudlin ending belongs to an entirely different movie. Russian accents wouldn't have helped. "Phantom" would be a disaster in any language.
PLOT During the Cold War, a Soviet submarine captain accepts a mysterious mission. RATING R (language, violence)
BOTTOM LINE What's Russian for "incomprehensible"? A fine cast, including East Meadow native Fichtner, is wasted in this nonsensical, nearly unwatchable "thriller."