Hardly a spasm of nostalgia but so old-fashioned it smells like your grandfather’s socks, Jonathan Mostow’s U-571 is not the WW II submarine movie, but—endearingly—a WW II submarine movie, a patient, tight genre number that acts as if Das Boot never happened. It’s difficult to resist Hollywood’s recent anti-’80s tendency to shy away from cosmic blockbusting in favor of midcentury matinee obsessions like submarines, Vikings, giant animals, haunted houses, etc.; the modesty is ingratiating. (The Greek-myth fantasies are left, sadly, to TV.) Who said every movie has to wipe you out? Mostow’s smoothly efficient white-knuckler (he applied a similarly lean-mean approach to Breakdown) does its work as unceremoniously as its characters do theirs, and though there are occasional bombastic timpani seizures, the propaganda is kept to a minimum.
We open with a German U-boat, equipped with an Allies-maddening coding machine, stranded in the eastern Atlantic. Quickly, an American crew is pulled off liberty to intercept it masquerading as a German rescue sub, capture the exhausted crew, and steal the coder. But the seas are littered with German boats, and when a torpedo takes out the American sub, the handful of surviving Americans still on the near-dead German ship must try to clear the waters and get out alive. The characters are familiar—hot young fearless leader Matthew McConaughey, second banana Jon Bon Jovi, seasoned sarge Harvey Keitel, Noo Yawk greaseball Erik Palladino, black cook T.C. Carson, greenhorned spy Jake Weber—but the work is the story, blessed with only a single sacrificial death (offscreen, even) and no speeches. The fact that nearly everything about U-571 has been done better elsewhere doesn’t sour the fact that it’s a simple pleasure watching an American movie that respects genre, knows its limitations, and genuflects at the memory of Don Siegel in the age of Spielberg.
Another blast from the past: Brit has-been Mike Hodges—legendary in some circles for Get Carter and overlooked for The Terminal Man—brings us Croupier, an existential hard-boil about the lowlife, in which an inscrutable writer (Clive Owen) takes a job dealing in a London casino and wades into the human pit despite (or because of) his ex-cop girlfriend (the exquisitely sad Gina McKee) and his distaste for gambling. A heist eventually gives him something to worry about, brought to his attention by sultry grifter Alex Kingston. Polished and adroit ado about next to nothing, Hodges’s film owes everything to Owen, who nails the vaguely unsavory, unreadable, half-lidded hunks that inhabit every profitable entertainment-industry outpost.