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U-571: Collector's Edition

U-571 director Jonathan Mostow's awesome 1998 Breakdown demonstrated that he had a pop-thriller sensibility, equal parts Duel and Deliverance (if you haven't seen Breakdown, imagine Roman Polanski's Frantic, only with Kurt Russell and not boring and substituting trailer trash for the French). And even though U-571 was guaranteed to be somewhat suspenseful by virtue of being set on a submarine, again Mostow comes up with a taut, compelling storyline. Of course, he knew that submarines are a sort of "suspense guarantee" — that the sounds of pressure-induced creaking and depth-charge explosions in magnificent, ear-piercing digital surround, plus the claustrophobic sets and the close-ups of sweaty faces, would probably be enough to sell tickets in today's thrill-ride film culture. Even Crimson Tide, which has fairly cartoony bookending scenes, got gripping once it went underwater. But U-571 is a plot-intensive story that, while not breaking any new ground thematically or anything, maintains its internal logic and pretty much never lets up. In retrospect, all the war-film clichés are in place, including the young XO (an excellent, lean Matthew McConaughey), passed up for promotion because he's green, thrown into extraordinary circumstances that test his leadership mettle; the old mission-gone-horribly-wrong narrative saw; the anachronistic Second World War dialogue, featuring such zingers as "We'll bushwhack 'em real good," and which the cast, particularly McConaughey, sells beautifully. In this milieu, the stock characters work well — the salty-dog chief (Harvey Keitel), the weary and wise skipper (Bill Paxton), the scary intelligence mofo (David Keith), the greenhorn, the guy who chokes under pressure, the Doubting Thomas, the wild-card prisoner, the wiseacre mess steward, et. al. But U-571 gains a lot of its excitement because the film keeps tossing these story elements and characters at us so fast and furious that there's nary a second to say, "Hey, he lifted that from Das Boot." The only criticism here would be that those few moments that the film slows down to develop character are welcome, and we could use more of them. And for those who say "U-571 is no Das Boot," we should note that Wolfgang Petersen made a thoughtful character piece — Mostow's film is World War II thrill ride, and hopefully it will inspire the young and ignorant to get the Das Boot DVD. Universal's U-571: Collector's Edition features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with demo-quality audio in both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 or a French Dolby 2.0 Surround track (the depth-charge sequence is not to be missed in your home theater). Features are plentiful, and include an informative commentary by director Mostow; a 13-minute "behind-the-scenes" featurette; a six-minute interview feature with Mostow; "Inside the Enigma," a look at the Nazi secret-code machine; Mostow's interviews with Royal Navy Lt. Commander David Balme and U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Patrick Hannifin, who participated in the capture of Enigma machines during the Battle of the Atlantic; U.S. Naval archives on the seizure of a German U-boat; the theatrical trailer; production notes; and cast and crew bios and filmographies. Keep-case.
—Alexandra DuPont

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