K-19: The Widowmaker

K-19: The Widowmaker (12A)

It’s a Hollywood tradition that established stars reach a certain age and suddenly feel the need to either re-invent themselves or do something more ‘serious’.

Now it’s Harrison Ford’s turn. After years of playing the all-American hero in the Indiana Jones films and a slew of other undemanding dramas and thrillers he’s opted to celebrate turning 60 by playing a Russian submarine commander in this try-hard Cold War adventure.

Not that there’s any problem in Ford attempting to expand his rather limited range, just that he’s in danger of looking as foolish as John Wayne when he tried on the cloak of Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. It all ended up looking rather silly.

In K-19 Ford plays Captain Vostrikov, a Russian Navy career veteran and tough disciplinarian handed the job of testing a new nuclear submarine before it’s ready for the sea. In doing so he takes over the command previously held by Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson), so further upsetting the dynamic aboard the boat.

While the top brass is happy with Vostrikov, the men are not. Moreover, with ten men dead before the sub even leaves port, they consider it a jinxed vessel. They christen it The Widowmaker. Things take a decided turn for the worse when the boat’s reactor starts to disintegrate. Vostrikov, Polenin and the crew know the submarine could explode. If it does, the Americans will think the USSR has launched a nuclear warhead, and will retaliate. Suddenly, there is so much more to play for…

Combining elements of Crimson Tide and The Hunt for Red October, K-19 fails to excite much tension in what is, perhaps surprisingly, a true story. The claustrophobic confines of the submarine mixed with Ford’s monotone performance make for dull drama, while Neeson does his best as the humanitarian officer to keep things interesting.

At its most basic K-19, helmed by Kathryn (Point Break) Bigelow, is lacklustre. While the ending of the story is already known – it didn’t explode – there is nothing to hold onto, nothing to believe in. Ford looks bored or worried, Neeson desperate, while a succession of anonymous-looking youngsters fill out the cast as the various sailors on board. None get the chance to shine.

Throw in a cliché-ridden script – “Ask them, Captain. Don’t tell them.” – by Christopher Kyle and this soggy tale sinks before it gets out of dry dock.

While one could praise Ford’s attempts to break free of the straitjacket of typecasting following K-19 and the far superior What Lies Beneath, one has to ask whether he’s left it way too late. Certainly he appears to be seeking a new direction but, with Indy IV on the horizon, he may find that the familiar embrace of a tried and tested formula may be preferable to breaking new ground.

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