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Friday, 25 October, 2002, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
K-19 stays afloat
Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson
The film is based on a real-life event

Submarine movies remain a staple part of the Hollywood diet even though every tension while underwater cliche has surely been depth-charged by now.

But having reached new depths a few years ago with the execrable U-571, Hollywood, or producer/director Kathryn Bigelow to be more precise, has made a reasonable fist of refloating the genre with K-19: The Widowmaker.

A war-time action/thriller with no fighting, little action and not many thrills, K-19 relies on buoyant performances from Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson and a good story to just about deserve 138 minutes of your attention.

Christian Camargo as Pavel Loktev
The crew face an unenviable task
A film that bills itself as being "inspired" by a true story is normally about as promising as one that purports to be Hollywood's best ever submarine movie.

But Bigelow manages, by and large, to resist the temptation of "improving" a good story and the real events of the first mission of the Soviet Union's first nuclear submarine are allowed to unfold.

The year is 1961 and a Soviet Union worried about slipping behind in the arms race is rushing to get its first nuclear sub into the water.

Captain Mikhail Polenin, played by Neeson, is popular with his men but unpopular with the top brass because he refuses to cut corners when it comes to his crew's safety.

With the launch deadline approaching fast, Polenin is replaced by Harrison Ford's Captain Alexei Vostrikov.

Harrison Ford
The suspense is ruined by our knowledge of the facts
The new man is something of a wet fish compared to Polenin, but he respects a timetable and is determined, for professional and personal reasons, to get K-19 launched on time.

So far, so well documented, if a little tedious.

Things get much better, however, when things start to go wrong.

Having slipped past a Nato base on its way to a patrol mission off the US coast, K-19's nuclear reactor springs a leak.

With a disaster that would combine the nastier elements of Chernobyl and the Kursk tragedy on the cards, Neeson and Ford clash over how best to save the ship, crew and possibly the world.

This last point is quite important, as Bigelow needs us to believe that a nuclear explosion so close to a Nato base could have triggered World War III.

The problem with hanging your dramatic thread on this is that it sinks any chance of genuine suspense - World War III did not start, so Neeson and Ford must have saved the day.

That said the story of the men who volunteered to put their fingers in the leak - some of whom died soon after due to lethal doses of radiation - is compelling.

And the performances, not to mention the Russian accents, of the entire cast cannot be faulted.

As a result, K-19 manages to avoid the watery grave of U-571 and Crimson Tide without ever threatening Das Boot's claim to being the submarine genre's masterpiece.

K-19: The Widowmaker is on general release across the UK from Friday.

See also:

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