Based on true events of 1961, "K-19" (IMDb listing) tells the story of one of the largest Russian submarines ever put to sea, and how during its tempestuous inaugural run its nuclear reactor malfunctioned. With the clock ticking down to a Chernobyl-like disaster, Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), and his second-in-command, Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), must navigate through dangerous waters, American involvement, and the suspicious heads of state back home as they try to save face while averting total disaster.
"K-19" also marks a comeback of sorts for director Kathryn Bigelow, the mind behind the millennium thriller "Strange Days," and the immortal surfer action film "Point Break." Like fellow action maestro Renny Harlin ("Deep Blue Sea"), Bigelow is a director often stuck with silly, often unbearable material. But with cunning instincts, she manages to make whatever is placed in front of her into a watchable, if not entirely exceptional, end product. "K-19" is nowhere near silly, but it is written in a way that doesn't deviate too much from the customary submarine clichés that have served "Das Boot," "The Hunt For Red October," "Crimson Tide," and the recent "U-571" so well. "K-19" isn't an action film, it's more of a disaster thriller, but nobody told Bigelow this. In her first studio effort since 1995's "Strange Days" (her 2000 Sean Penn thriller, "The Weight Of Water," remains inexplicably unreleased), she steps up to the plate with an apple crate full of visual ideas that steer "K-19" through otherwise familiar and disappointingly written waters.
Taking the American element out of the story was a nice touch. Losing the rah-rah jingoism that usually accompanies American sub thrillers, Bigelow's Russian-born tale is a welcome sight for the senses. The picture is far from being overtly hammer and sickle, but "K-19" delves into the Russian work ethic and stoicism that built an empire. The meltdown aboard the K-19 is a horrific incident, and Bigelow doesn't shy from the grim aspects of the destruction. The film's pivotal, and best, moment comes when the men must penetrate the nuclear chamber to try to fix the leaks. Without proper protective suits, the men must wade around radioactive waters to complete their mission, only to emerge from the chamber riddled with radiation poisoning. It's one of the few realistic points of the film, and very troubling to watch. But Bigelow doesn't flinch, and the sequence showcases the true danger of what this crew was facing in a disturbing and unforgettable way.
Much will be made of Harrison Ford's decision to go with a Russian accent, and that's an easy target. Sure, it's odd to hear a Boris Badenov flavor coming out of Ford's mouth, but Ford's performance has a lot more going for it than just a simple accent. As the bull-headed captain unwilling to lose the fight, Ford must try to find emotional release along with stern command under the thick guise of Soviet authority. Grim-faced for much of the picture, Ford works beautifully when it comes time for Vostrikov's descent into realization that his boat is losing the battle with time. Considering Ford's limited output recently, I can honestly say this is the most thoroughly rewarding performance out of the actor in the last few years.
Rather unexpectedly though, "K-19" doesn't know when to quit. The last 20 minutes of the film deal with the courtroom aftermath of the event, along with a trip to the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the survivors could finally speak about this crucial event in Russian history. This extra fat on the picture acts more as a weight than a cathartic closure. This film has completed its job with the story in the sub, and there wasn't any need to head back to dry land. "K-19" almost sinks itself with this mindset of utter and total respect for the events, when in fact the tale alone is enough to pay tribute to this harrowing story of survival.
Filmfodder Grade: B