Wolfgang Petersen set the standard for submarine movies in 1981 with Das Boot. Now Jonathan Mostow, whose thriller Breakdown was among the best movies of 1997, has made his own submarine movie. What U-571 contributes to the genre is the revelation that what were original, tense set pieces in Das Boot, are now just cliches.
Matthew McConaughey leads a team of submarine sailors on a mission to steal a Nazi encryption machine. Harvey Keitel, Bill Paxton, and Jon Bon Jovi round out the elders of the cast.
PG-13 for violence
The Bedford Incident, a nuclear submarine movie from 1965 with Richard Widmark in the leading role.
Run Silent, Run Deep, a submarine movie with Burt Lancaster as a cocky XO (not unlike McConaughey in this movie).
U-571 suffers from more than just bad timing, it also suffers from occasionally bad directing and flat writing. For example, as Variety points out, none of the German bullets hit the Americans, but the American bullets always kill (even when the German has cover). And at a key turning point in the plot, Mostow resorts to a Star Trek Save — that’s where the actors fiddle with knobs until one of them says “it’s working!”
Since U-571 is something of a special effects movie, it’s fair to criticize it for sloppy digital compositing. Some of the most important scenes were so clearly photoshopped that it became a distraction. On the other hand, the best stuff in U-571 is the underwater cinematography of the submarine being buffeted by depth charge explosions. The steel twists and torques under the strain like a bridge in a hurricane.
When it’s good, U-571 is tense and action-packed. But it’s not good often enough or for long enough to distract you from its problems. Skip this one and rent Das Boot instead.