First it was "The Weight of the Water" back in 2000, then it was this submarine film in 2002, so for a while there, it seemed like Kathryn Bigelow was getting about as into films about water as her ex-husband. Granted, I don't know if "The Weight of the Water" was actually about water, seeing as how I, like most everyone else, didn't see it, but the point is that James Cameron's bizarre love of water adventures rubbed off on Bigelow, and it's a shame that the excitement that you usually get out of a Cameron film about water didn't rub off, as this film will tell you. You'd think that it should come as little surprise that this film about submarines is a little bit slow at times, but I can't tell if I'm more surprised by the fact that this film features both Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson and is still not too terribly thrilling, or by the fact that this film features both Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson and I was able to understand what the two leads were saying. In recent years, they've gotten mighty grumbly, but thankfully, I was able to grasp most of the perhaps excessive amount of dialogue in this film, probably because the performers hardly put all that much effort into sustaining a classically confusing Russian accent. Eh, Sean Connery didn't really care about the accent when he did his submarine movie, so I reckon little Indiana Jones is growing up to be just like his daddy, as well as to join forces with Qui-Gon Jinn to defend the military forces of a questionable government that aims to rule the world with its ideas. Wow, this kind of sounds more like a Lucas Arts film, only, well, a little bit better. Okay, to slow down all of the jokey complaints, this film is a good one, it's just that it's not exactly consistently gripping, which isn't to say that its problems end there.
I certainly wasn't going in expecting this film to be all that unique, but I really did not see the severity of this film's conventionalism coming, because even though the telling of this tale is inspired enough to compel, the point is that this is a seriously familiar, dare I say, generic thriller that establishes trope-heavy plotting and draws formulaic characters, and with limited subtlety. The film is pretty predictable, as its originality and subtlety issues are just too glaring, and while the final product is able to compensate enough through highlights in storytelling to compel just fine, it still tells a story which is too familiar for its own good, and takes longer to do so than it probably should. As with plenty of Kathryn Bigelow's efforts, this film, at about 138 minutes, is too long, achieving its questionable length largely through very thoughtful storytelling, but also largely through excess filler and material that, before too long, devolve into repetition that you can't help but notice, as atmospheric pacing is too steady for the film to avoid falling slave to its length. I've been joking about how slow the film is, making it sound like there are dull spells, but really, in defiance of my fears, the final product is generally, not simply quite entertaining, but compelling, yet it's a thoughtful kind of entertaining that meditates upon the flavor of this thriller, and such steadiness has a tendency to also give you time to think about how overlong and formulaic things are. On top of that, all of this steadiness also gives you a chance to meditate upon the film's natural shortcomings, which are rather considerable, because even though this film's story concept is obviously meaty enough for a rewarding interpretation to be made, the reason why padding is such a big problem is because this subject matter is kind of minimalist, with material limitations that could very well mean underwhelmingness for this film. Sure, the final product ultimately achieves a rewarding state, but basically by some kind of a miracle, because the blows to momentum are considerable, and momentum is pretty thin to begin with, thus making for a film that could have been strong and comes close to collapse into underwhelmingness. Of course, again, that collapse never comes, because no matter how thin the project may be concept, or how flawed the project may be in execution, it offers much to keep you compelled, even within such light-seeming aspect as score work.
I was personally more excited about seeing this film because it was one of the few occasions in which Jeff Cronenweth was able to escape from the David Fincher, but Cronenweth doesn't exactly offer the eye candy that he gave you in something like "Fight Club" (Well, it is one of the best-looking films ever, so it's not like had all that reasonable of a standard to live up to), so the person who most delivers on an artistic level is Klaus Badelt, whose score is, like the film itself, formulaic and, in some areas, rather thin in weight, but stronger than expected, boasting a subtle color that adds to entertainment value, if not dramatic effectiveness, which is perhaps more anchored by the performances. Sure, we can go on and on joking about the dodgy Russian accents, but this is still a strong cast, and one who delivers when they need to, flavoring up decent chemistry with subtly striking dramatic layers that, when really celebrated, breathe a lot of life into the human of the film that compensates for issues within formulaic characterization. The film offers strong musicality and acting, but quite frankly, there's not much to praise outside of that, and even then, it's not like the score and performances are all that outstanding, thus the final product has only so much to defend it from underwhelmingness that looms, even on paper. Of course, the film wouldn't be as rewarding as it ultimately is if it didn't at least have some fair deal of weight to its subject matter, and as sure as Jeff Cronenweth is a great cinematographer only when working with David Fincher, no matter how familiar or minimalist this thriller may be, it has a certain depth to it, enough so for compellingness to be a possibility that is, in fact, explored, even within Christopher Kyle's script, which is flawed, sure, but has its share of sharp areas. Many complain about the film's liberties with the true story it tells, and sure, there's something rather bothersome about the film's being intentionally inaccurate, but the liberties allow the film the opportunity to flesh out its mythology and depth, and it does not squander this opportunity, featuring characterization that is formulaic, but compensates for its expository limitations through a subtly extensive building of the characters, conflicts and depth that proves to be intriguing in the long run. Perhaps the Kyle stands to be more fleshed out, or at least more exploratory of less formulaic beats, but he doesn't let the film slow down too much, occupying a 138-minute runtime with an adequate degree of meaty material, brought to life by Kathryn Bigelow's inspired, if somewhat overambitious direction, which has its questionable areas, but establishes a rather potent atmosphere that keeps entertainment value up, until broken by heights in tension and drama that are milked enough to compel quite a bit through all of the hiccups in storytelling. The film boasts a fair deal of considerable flaws and only so many strengths, but its highlights end up going a long way in soaking up intrigue about as much as it can be, being entertaining and engaging enough to cut through the shortcomings and rise from the cold waters of underwhelmingness to a pretty rewarding point.
Upon surfacing from this venture, your investment might find itself shaken enough by generic storytelling, an excessive length and a problematically minimalist story concept for underwhelmingness to stand as a serious threat, but through lively score work, engaging performances, generally well-rounded writing and thoughtful direction, - which sustains anything from entertainment value to tension, if not dramatic resonance - underwhelmingness is challenged enough for "K-19: The Widowmaker" to stand as a consistently intriguing and reasonably rewarding submarine thriller.
3/5 - Good