Cold War underwater thriller: neither too boring nor too interesting. The postulation of a new and bigger Soviet submarine, with an "almost silent" propulsion system undetectable to conventional sonar -- or in other words, with the capacity of cozying up to the United States coastline with a huge payload of nuclear missiles -- gives off a science-fictional whiff of freshness. And for a time, after the Soviet captain has coolly cracked open the skull of the resident "political officer," has commandeered the second key required to arm the nuclear warheads, has put a match to his official orders and re-set the ship's course for America, a mystery element is nursed along. What is he up to? Is he meaning to defect, or has he somehow sailed over the edge of sanity and of brinkmanship? But this mystery element, along with our worst fears, our doomsday fears, gets laid to rest before the halfway mark, so that the scale of the action shrinks in a twinkling to a mere chase movie, a flight to freedom. And even that "almost silent" propulsion system, no longer necessary to stir up our nuclear worries, is cancelled out when the sonar man on the pursuing U.S. sub figures out how to read it — a bit of deduction that could have yielded an audio counterpart of the darkroom business in Blow-Up but is instead just dropped on us as a fait accompli. The director, John McTiernan, intermittently tries to electrify the atmosphere with little visual accelerandos: short spurts of tracking shots, precipitous changes of focus, the rough photographic equivalents of gunning an engine on idle (all show and no go). And when finally all hell breaks loose, with a saboteur running wild inside the sub and a second Soviet sub unloosing torpedoes outside, the result is only confusing when it isn't just silly. But the confusingness, as much as any of the plot developments, ought to have been predictable. After all, the dominant image in the movie — the low-angle closeup against a wide-screen unfocussed background — is a veritable badge of negligence. Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Sam Neill. (1990) — Duncan Shepherd
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