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Canned Laser Double Feature: Snitch and Phantom

Snitch and Phantom are two action movies that are based on true events. The crack team at Canned Laser made a field trip to two different cinemas in two different towns, barely arriving in time for both movies. What did they discover? Both are mediocre, but for different reasons.

snitch-poster

EEON

Snitch is a wild ride into the dangerous world of a man who can bench 425 and drive a truck. The reason why Snitch does not thrill me is this: in a purported action movie where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the leading man, it is not enough that he be able to bench 425 and drive a truck. He must also bench the truck…while using a machine gun to shoot down Harrier jets. The Rock is a decent actor, and very charismatic, but he is ill-cast as an everyman.

In Snitch, we get a “true to life” account of John Matthews, a loving divorcee and 18-wheeler mogul who takes extraordinary action to save his son from prison. When he isn’t ignoring his ex-wife, current wife, or children, Matthews fills his days as a hyper-reactive helicopter parent. After John’s teenage son Jason is sent to prison (lawfully) on drug charges (trumped up), the movie makes the boring choice to place Matthews into action movie limbo.

What is action movie limbo, you ask? In short, this condition occurs when a movie is reticent to be full-on ultraviolence, but is also too unrealistic to pass as a serious drama. Movies that require suspension of disbelief for their action scenes should use that choice as an opportunity to provide satisfying entertainment. This movie is all over the map. In one scene, The Rock gets his ass kicked by a small band of street thugs. Perhaps realistic, but also reinforcing the weakness of the casting. Later on, a semi truck is used to sweep a half dozen sedans off the road and into somersaulting fireballs. The really crazy part is that Matthews then jackknifes his rig off the Interstate and upside-down into a ditch. He received minor bumps and bruises. AS OPPOSED TO TRAUMATIC DEATH INJURIES.

This movie wants to be taken seriously, since it was inspired by the “true events” of the writer watching a PBS Frontline TV documentary about drug mules. Snitch kills itself from two sides: it is neither an escapist action movie, nor a serious drama. This is often forgivable, especially when the core of the story is entertaining. Snatch is an example of action limbo done right. Snitch, on the other hand, is so preachy, rote, and flat boring that even Susan Sarandon and Barry Pepper look like disinterested hacks. The underlying message is a good one: make the punishment fit the crime. In fact, I bet that the Frontline documentary that Snitch was based on is worth a watch.

PETE

I agree that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is not an everyman and never will be with a physique that probably less than 1% of people have. Neither did Arnold Schwarzenegger for that matter and his movies were the bread and butter staple of my youth. Indeed, Arnold may even be responsible for my later appreciation of foreign films, thanks to his accent. I don’t see Snitch as all that bad of an action movie. It’s just not anything spectacular, which you should expect if you decide to view this movie. There are no lasers. No cyborgs. Not even an alien race bent on destroying your city.

What you get is a gritty action drama or “GAD” that comes about when you use real world plot devices, like drug mules. Snitch is a balance between a political drama, provided by the law side of the equation played by Susan Sarandon and Barry Pepper, and a crime drama where you have gangs and cartels. The big bad “Scarface” type is played by Benjamin Bratt in this case who I liked for his psychotic workplace tactics and his dad of the year lifestyle at home. It was a nice contradiction, which was a theme shared by DA Sarandon as well, who uses the misfortune of people to advance her career as opposed to weighing the scales of justice.

Part of the problem with lofty themes like these is that they often feel out of place in an action movie and in particular when The Rock is delivering it. But I applaud him for stepping out into this role. He’s come a long way since The Scorpion King and Doom. This movie is very close in tone and performance to another movie he did called Walking Tall. So if you like that movie you may like Snitch. At the heart of this movie is a real problem and that may be a bummer for some, but every once in a while it’s good to see some people get their butts unrealistically kicked even if your life is ruined because of it. In that sense it is a great family film as they will be seeing a lot of each other in witness protection.

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EEON

Submarines are awesome, this is a fact. The Cold War, while terrifying, is one of the most dramatic backdrops from which to draw a “true events” plot. Despite this, movies about cold war submarines are very spotty. The Hunt for Red October is a standout classic, while K-19: The Widowmaker is regarded less favorably. Phantom is VERY loosely based on the 1968 sinking of Soviet sub K-129. While out for a cruise in the Pacific, the K-129 mysteriously disappeared with all hands. This is where the similarity ends between the reality and the movie.

In Phantom, an evil David Duchovny faces off against an old and epileptic Ed Harris for control of the ailing K-129 diesel submarine. Unlike the real K-129, the boat in Phantom is equipped with a long range ballistic nuclear missile. Under the guise of a training exercise, the K-129 is co-opted by radical KGB operatives and is redirected to launch its nuclear payload against the United States. Ed Harris manages to fight back the KGB, but not before telling a story about how ballerinas in New York City exemplify the rugged individuality and innate beauty of the American people. Duchovny is not impressed, and counters with some canned Soviet villain talking points. Eventually everyone dies, except for William Fitchner. Spoiler alert. William Fitchner is a real standout in his role as the K-129 first officer. Fitchner is one of the most convincing actors out there, and oddly likable. It’s good that he doesn’t make TV commercials for crack-cocaine; his eerie staredown and dismissive line reads would inspire all the kids to light up a pipe and smoke some rocks.

Phantom is a passable dramatization, but pales in comparison with the actual events surrounding the K-129. Several years after the sub went down, the CIA took extraordinary measures to recover the K-129 in order to recover its Cold War secrets. Project Azorian was tasked with recovering the Soviet sub, and involved a scale of maritime engineering that may never be rivaled. If you only have 90 minutes to spend on this topic, do yourself a favor and check out the documentary Azorian, the story of the recovery effort. Based on box office results the movie-going public agrees. To date, after two weeks of release, Phantom has grossed less than $600,000, from a budget of $18 million.

PETE

Let me reiterate: Submarines are awesome. What is the appeal? I think it is the fact that you have to be absolutely insane to get in one. Can you think of a crazier job? Climb into a metal tube armed with all kinds of things that explode, even your batteries and then go underwater without the ability to see where you are going. The circumstance is chock-full of real world drama so it is only natural that it make for a great movie experience.

Sadly I can not in good faith add Phantom to the pantheon of great submarine movies Like Das Boot and The Hunt For Red October. However I can ad it to the tier two pantheon with K-19 and U-571, which all use real events as a basis for their movies, but take sever liberties. Phantom is unique because it takes the largest leaps thus far at postulating what happened to K-129. There are elements of horror and sci-fi, which heightens the unbelievability of the story. I think the appeal of Das Boot for example is that it is so real that it is unbelievable as opposed to a fantastical KGB contraption and “I see dead people” moments.

The other weird thing about Phantom, is how little you get for $18 million. Although the movie’s effects are very passable, I couldn’t help but notice how poorly the film was edited. At one point and I’m not sure as I will have to see it again to verify this, but it appeared that a critical line delivered from Ed Harris was flubbed and not edited out. It seemed like he said (and I’m paraphrasing) “When you’re a ship you have to do what’s best for the ship” or something to that effect. Also the horror and sci-fi elements are of the lowest quality effects and that is to say there aren’t any, save for some smeared blood. But these are minor inconveniences for me. The appeal of the movie is Ed Harris squaring off against David Duchovny.

I’m not sure where the future of submarine movies is going. They were the quintessential Cold War weapon. As much as I hate to give Terminator Salvation any credit, the portrayal of the submarine in that movie as the last line of retaliation is pretty solid. With first strike capability diminishing on the scale of things we need and navies shrinking all over the globe (except for those countries just getting modern navies like China), the future and meaning of the submarine is in question. When you consider the last modern sub movie was The Hunt For Red October, a movie about people defecting from the Soviet Union featuring Typhoon Class submarines that are today reaching the end of their lifespan, you may be left to wonder if the well is dry. Phantom doesn’t wow, but it at least entertains the thought that this genre is still afloat.

1 Comment

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  1. Jim says
    2013/03/21, 16:18

    I think your description of “action movie limbo” is very astute. In a serious drama, a small dose of action like a single shot or fistfight goes a long way – it’s punctuation for all the emotional suspense. On the flip side, attempting to add too much dramatic significance to what could be an unpretentious action movie takes the fun out of it. So it seems that filmmakers would do well to commit to one approach or the other, rather than comprise on an unconvincing blend of both.

    Submarines: my favorite leg of the nuclear triad. Why? I think I read some science fiction story once where we repelled an alien invasion with subs. The aliens were from a desert planet and did not expect that a terrestrial species like ours would have nuclear weapons hidden in the sea.

    PS Check out the Askimet plugin if you haven’t already to cut down on comment spam.

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