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Things Fall Apart

Now that we know the Russians love their children too, along comes K-19: The Widowmaker to complete the reversal of sympathies. A miracle-makeover program in which our onetime foes are transformed into certified action heroes, Kathryn Bigelow's muscular submarine flick can hardly be termed pro-Party, what with its broad vilification of Kremlin bureaucratic ineptitude. But red-baiting enjoyed such a long and profitable hegemony in American movies that even at this late stage, a Cold War thriller told exclusively from a Soviet perspective counts as a novelty. Indeed, the casting of Harrison Ford, Hollywood commander in chief and heavyweight box office champ of the Reagan years, as navy captain Alexei Vostrikov, fiercely patriotic defender of the Motherland, registers foremost as a giant alienation effect. The actor himself adds to the general confusion by speaking his lines from behind a faintly embarrassed glower and in a discreetly Slavic-flavored English (working without a nyet, you might say, in a stunt performance of sorts).

Based on an actual event that Soviet authorities suppressed for decades, K-19 is a more hands-on tale of M.A.D.-era brinksmanship than Thirteen Days (which tracked the Cuban Missile Crisis as it unfolded around boardroom tables). There's plenty of head-butting, though not between the superpowers: Vostrikov's appointment to the helm of the titular nuclear sub in 1961, with the arms race in full clamor, relegates Liam Neeson's comparatively levelheaded big lug Polenin to second in command. Hell-bent on demonstrating their deterrence capability to the Yanks pronto, Vostrikov's superiors want him to expedite K-19's maiden voyage. Polenin mounts an impassioned argument against the vessel's seaworthiness—it's so accident-prone that a double-digit body count is racked up even in dry dock—but Vostrikov sets sail anyway, a hundred-strong crew on board.

In more ways than one, the subgenre leaves little room for maneuver—battles play out on radar screens within cramped quarters; torpedoes are retarded by underwater resistance. Malfunctioning equipment and mutinous crews are the traditional plot cornerstones; mostly, men in uniform bellow at each other and look on in dismay as gauges and dials go berserk. A safe bet for a director trying to rebound from the unduly maligned Strange Days, K-19 (which could just as well go by the title of Bigelow's long-delayed indie project, The Weight of Water, scheduled for a fall release) is as square-shouldered as you'd expect of a National Geographic co-production. But Bigelow hits all her marks and more within the narrow parameters, helped by a crack team that includes veteran editor Walter Murch and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (who knows a thing or two about tricky camera moves from Fight Club).

Louder than bombs: Ford with Ingvar Sigurdsson in K-19
photo: George Kraychyk
Louder than bombs: Ford with Ingvar Sigurdsson in K-19

Details

K-19: The Widowmaker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Written by Christopher Kyle
Paramount

Austin Powers in Goldmember
Directed by Jay Roach
Written by Mike Myers & Michael McCullers
New Line
Opens July 26

Eight Legged Freaks
Directed by Ellory Elkayem
Written by Elkayem & Jesse Alexander
Warner Bros.

The convulsive action centerpiece arrives early in the trip when Vostrikov decides to boost morale by orchestrating the manliest of drills—plummeting to crush depths and swiftly ascending to the surface, smashing through the chunky ice shelf of the Arctic Circle and into momentarily disorienting daylight. Bigelow, never one to shy from phallic imagery, promptly provides another money shot, uncorking a test missile and catapulting it into space. All of which is mere prelude to the real drama: The cooling system springs a leak, causing the reactor to overheat and possibly set off a thermonuclear explosion that would in all likelihood trigger World War III.

Ford and Neeson dutifully hurl daggers, but the conflict between their characters never surmounts the redundant pairing of stolid and stolider—and is in any case resolved with a nonsensical change of heart. Vastly more engrossing than the marquee-name commotion, the crew's chilling battle with an untamable enemy makes for a solemn half-hour of stomach-turning tension: Armed with a puny soldering gun and protected by raincoat-thin suits, the sailors enter the toxic chamber where the reactor core palpitates like a diseased heart, bathed in eerie blue light and spurting radioactive waste. They wade into a rising pool of contaminated fluid and stagger out copiously bleeding and vomiting; even more difficult to take are the looks on the faces of the men awaiting their turn. Unavoidably haunted by the Kursk disaster, K-19 tacks on a salute-to-heroes postscript, but the hollow crescendo can't drown out the clammy, desperate fear at the center of this tragedy. Bigelow, to her credit, captures it without once blinking.


If K-19 illustrates the failure of Communism, Austin Powers in Goldmember and Eight Legged Freaks might be said to demonstrate the breakdown of Hollywood postmodernism. The second Powers film, the frequently hilarious The Spy Who Shagged Me, represented a giddy pinnacle of damaged reflexivity—a sequel that essentially remade the original, a spoof of spy-movie spoofs that were themselves a superfluous footnote to a self-spoofing genre. Which now begs the question: How do you follow up a state of infinite regress?

Fittingly for the successor to a $200 million hit, Goldmember opens with a display of might—scenes from an Austin Powers film-within-the-film, stocked with movie stars so famous New Line has asked reviewers to withhold their identity. But the cheap thrills, expensively procured and otherwise, dry up soon thereafter. Star/writer Mike Myers and director Jay Roach struggle visibly with exhausted possibilities and diminishing returns: The eponymous secret agent's waning shtick (and fading libido?) isn't helped by this installment's bored, distant sidekick, Beyoncé Knowles's Grier manqué, Foxxy Cleopatra. In lieu of the psychedelic candy swirl of Swinging London, we get a flashback to an English boarding school in the '50s and a time-travel mission to '70s New York, but the period detail is drab and oddly careless (Austin's superfly pimp ensemble notwithstanding).

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