The days of the Cold War are long gone, but in Hollywood it lives forever as healthy fodder for spies, soldiers, and submarines. But for once, we’re seeing things from the other side as Harrison Ford straps on a Russian accent and hops on board K-19: The Widowmaker.
This generation has grown up with Harrison. We got him for Christmas encased in plastic marked “Solo”. We pretended we WERE Harrison, with whips made of old rope behind the shed in our backyards. Though he will always be for me, the ultimate movie star, it has been so long since he’s done anything relevant, that folks are left longing for the days of Indiana Jones glory, or even the glow of The Fugitive’s furtive chase. So it was with a hope for a new era of Ford that I raced to my favorite theater, United Artist’s Macarthur Marketplace in Irving, abandoning what was probably more important work, to see if my favorite movie star could pull this Russian thing off.
Like many of the other Ford films of past years, K-19 is yet another political “tension-drama” in which the fate of the world hangs on the decisions of a few politicians and soldiers. But at least for once, Ford has switched sides, and in this, plays a grizzled submarine Captain aboard the first Soviet Nuclear Sub in cold war era 1961. Much like the Enterprise in Star Trek V, the newly completed flagship of the fleet, K-19, is launched amidst bad luck and delays due to being under-funded, and under-manned. Her original Captain, Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) has been found wanting in his duty, reduced to the rank of first officer, and replaced by staunchly communist Cpt. Alexi Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). Their mission vital, Vostrikov presses on, driving his crew to the limit to prepare them for war. But everything that can go wrong does, and without their transporters to beam them off the planet… whoops, wrong movie... with their nuclear reactor headed for meltdown, tensions rise as Captain and crew fight for their lives and their country.
The centerpiece of the movie is conflict between Vostrikov and Polenin over which comes first: duty to country, or duty to crew. But much like Spock giving the ultimate sacrifice to save his shipmates in Star Trek II, tension between Vostrikov and Polenin is reduced to shadow as the crew enters the K-19 reactor, giving their lives in a desperate attempt to fix the Warp… er stop meltdown.
Sadly, K-19 is merely a footnote in a long line of far better submarine dramas. A story about sacrifice and entrapment below the seas should be filled with tension and heart pounding battles of wills. K-19 delivers none of that, managing merely to be almost overly hum-drum as it lumbers on and on killing crewman we are expected to care about, but can’t even recognize, let alone know.
The only two memorable faces are those of Ford and Neeson, who as expected, carry themselves admirably throughout the movie. As usual, the problem with the films Ford makes these days is not his ability as an actor, but his insistence on picking scripts that challenge neither him, nor his audience. He and Neeson are BOTH a delight as they growl and bark in predictably Soviet fashion. Yet K-19 itself, while not un-enjoyable, is hardly memorable, especially when compared to much better films of it’s chosen arena, like The Hunt for Red October or Crimson Tide.
There is no real action; there is no real tension. The most exciting thing about the movie is a series of excessive drills, repeatedly botched by the crew. The thing which SHOULD have hit the flick home, the crew’s trip into the reactor to save the ship, was merely a parody of Leonard Nimoy’s work in The Wrath of Khan, and fails to do much more than cause suffering to characters we do not know. You can tell me these guys are heroes all you want, but if you don’t make them look heroic, or at least give them a personality beyond an occasional pet mouse or an illegal religious icon, I’m not going to buy in.
Filled with fine performances, and historical set pieces, K-19 is merely a sigh and a footnote. Tightly constructed and ultimately wasted, someone ought to have had the sense to give the film a little more energy. This isn’t a bad movie. It is intriguing, but probably better suited to the History Channel. Warp speed Mr. Chekov!