U-571 review

Close them history books, kids. They won't help you here. But what they will tell you is that it was the Royal Navy, not the US Navy, that was instrumental in capturing the Enigma machines, and British intelligence which cracked the codes. But then, writer/director Jonathan Mostow knew that as well - which is why he includes a lengthy dedication to the British Navy at the close of his movie. Bless 'im.

Of course, this is fiction, and sneering at the lack of historical accuracy is surely missing the point. This ain't Das Boot. This is a ripping World War Two yarn, an old-fashioned tale of ordinary men forced to fight extraordinary odds. And it's a damn well-executed tale at that, mixing some cinema-rumbling big bangs with plenty of screen-cinging pyrotechnics, and drenching the lot with exactly the kind of tense, claustrophobic atmosphere you'd expect from a film about being stuck in a big metal can under the sea.

Mostow proved capable of pitching the chills and spills with Breakdown, and U-571 is likewise effective. The plot makes some well-navigated manoeuvres, taking you off in unexpected directions, and the battle sequences are treated with a steady hand by a director who knows how to build tension. When our heroes nervously await the next set of teeth-rattling depth charge explosions, you can't help but feel a knot in your gut. Some superb sound effects work helps too, meaning you have to see this at a cinema with a good sound system, where the subaquatic booming is as likely to leave your ears ringing as it does the characters'.

But while U-571 offers a satisfyingly solid chunk of war-movie entertainment, it's far from flawless and, despite the massive sonic blasts, there's really little in it which resonates beyond the auditorium. The problem is primarily its lack of engagingly layered characters: there's simply a clutch of likeable sea-grunts including the token black guy, the just-married guy (who may as well be wearing a "dead meat" sign), the reliable, gruff chief (Keitel) who barks orders as well as he follows them, the twitchy one who loses it, and the determined first officer (McConaughey), who's upset at being refused his own command...

It's not that the actors are to blame, as McConaughey in particular exudes all the expected steely charm of a war-hero lead, and it's nice to see Bill Paxton promoted from jittery loudmouthed grunt to sober captain. It's just that Mostow's script is too plot-driven to flesh them out properly, and it's so choppy that you'll even find it difficult to keep tabs properly on who's who, especially given the absence of A-listers on the cast list. Of course, if it's big bangs you're after, then this won't matter too much. Just pack those lug plugs if your brain's easily jarred...

Even though U-571 is a deep-sea drama which is content to paddle in the shallows, it delivers all the tension and pyro-kinetic excitement you'd expect from a depth-chargin' World War Two mission movie. But enjoy this on the big screen, not video.

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