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Dan Heller's Movie Review of "K-19: The Widowmaker"


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There are pros and cons to making movies based on successful formulas. On one hand, a good cookie-cutter formula makes a film easy to make, and will likely to be a sure hit with certain target audiences. On the other hand, formula pictures tend to have lots of competition, making it more difficult to rise above the fray. The film, "K-19: The Widowmaker", is an action thriller that suffers so much from the mundane "been there, done that" of the standard formula for the genre, that its better qualities come too late and are weak to save it.

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The film is based on the real "K-19", the Soviet nuclear submarine whose mission was to patrol the Atlantic coast of the United States during the early 60s in case the cold war escalated into a nuclear attack. The movie begins with the submarine's first captain, portrayed by Liam Neeson, being removed following a failed test run of K-19 while still in dock. He remains onboard as the executive officer, but the captainship is replaced by Alexi Vostrikov, played by Harrison Ford. Although the two men work together at first, they become increasingly at odds over the intent of their mission as conditions on board get dire. When a nuclear reactor core leak threatens not only the ship, but the fragile US/Russia relationship, their relationship also comes to a head. The film's best drama finally comes into play, not by the clashing of the two commanders, but below decks, where the young and inexperienced Soviet crewmen sacrifice themselves to seal the leak and supply coolant to the core, thus saving the world.

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From the dramatic opening scenes that turn out to be only test runs of emergency procedures, to the ending scenes, the entire movie is a series of clips that seem to be lifted directly from other movies. I was even reminded of Spock exposing himself to lethal radiation at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, in order to save the Enterprise from a similar core leak. Spock's statement, "The good of the many outweigh the needs of the few," seemed particularly apropos to the Soviet crew on K-19.

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It's not that "K-19" is a terrible movie, but it's too similar to (and constantly reminds you of) many other movies. The most direct comparison is, of course, "Crimson Tide", which was a far better movie in every possible respect. Ford and Neeson never portray a strong enough dynamic to give us the same kind of tension and gripping suspense that Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman did in "Crimson Tide." What's more, the overly-dramatic music and cinematography in the first half of K-19 had not yet been justified by events or relationships to warrant such emotional manipulation. This in itself turned me off so much that, by the time the movie got better, I just didn't care anymore. In the end, the movie wasn't that bad to watch because of some good performances, but its inability to break out of the formulaic model doomed it in the end.


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