Writer-director Jonathan Mostow made a name for himself in 1997 with Breakdown, a superior B-movie in nearly every respect. Involving, action-packed, and skillfully directed, its success as entertainment more than compensated for its shortcomings as art. So it is with U-571, Mostow's latest, a WWII submarine thriller about an American attempt to capture a machine holding the key to Germany's encryption techniques. (This crucial task actually fell on British shoulders, but never mind.) Matthew McConaughey stars as a naval lieutenant passed over for promotion by commanding officer Bill Paxton, who feels that his empathy with his men may inhibit his ability to perform his duties as an officer. McConaughey's mettle is quickly put to the test, however, by a series of misadventures that place him and a handful of men (including Harvey Keitel and Jon Bon Jovi) aboard an evacuated German sub, forced to make their way out of enemy territory aboard a damaged, unfamiliar ship. U-571 borrows heavily from Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot—how could it not?—and, given the talent involved, it's not unreasonable to expect it to evolve into a Das Boot-like examination of camaraderie and the meaning of war. It doesn't. But, then, it doesn't even try, aiming for the considerably less lofty goal of delivering an unrelenting action movie and succeeding quite well. Mostow so effectively, if somewhat heavy-handedly, sets up the rules of underwater warfare in the first half of the film that the time spent breaking them in a second half filled with explosions and creaking metal proves truly exciting. Like Breakdown, it's a triumph of lowered expectations, but still a triumph.
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