I’m resurrecting this series (if you can call two posts a “series”) because I’m pretty sure there’s nothing more fun to write about than bad movies. Previously: “The Skulls” and “Forces of Nature”
First up: “U-571” (2000). Okay, okay, it’s not THAT bad. It’s got a 68% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and it was successful at the box office. But it’s also cheesy as hell. I would argue that the cheese factor is part of its charm, but still……… skip this one if you have a dairy allergy. Or if you’re into subtlety.
In case you missed it:
It’s 1942, and the Allies are getting their asses kicked by German submarines partly because the Nazis have this insanely complicated unbreakable code called Enigma. (If you feel like watching “U-571” instead of that god-awful Benedict whatever-his-name-is thing, I won’t argue with you.) Anyway, the US gets word that a damaged German sub, U-571, is all alone in the North Atlantic. A US Navy sub is rigged to look like a U-boat so it can Trojan Horse the U-571 before its German re-supply sub gets there. They can snag the Enigma machine on board with the Nazis none the wiser.
(“Hey,” you might be asking yourself, “Why is the US Navy handling this? Even if I ignore the historical reality that the Brits captured an Enigma coding machine like six months before Pearl Harbor, isn’t the UK closer to where U-571 is marooned, and therefore they’d be able to get there faster? I mean, if beating the German re-supply sub to U-571 is as important as the movie is telling me it is?” Hahahahaha stop asking questions. #Murica)
We are helpfully introduced to our plucky American crew at the wedding of one of them, whose name I couldn’t tell you because he’s dead like five minutes later. The major players are: Lt. Tyler (Matthew McConaughey), Lt. Commander Gonnadiesoon (Bill Paxton), Chief (Harvey Keitel, who was 61 when this movie was released – one year away from mandatory retirement age, yay!), and a military intelligence guy, Mr. Hirsch (Jake Weber). Bon Jovi and David Keith are also there… but not for long. And then there are a cohort of 12-year-old sailors, who despite the fact that they all look alike come across as distinct characters, which is nice.
As you’ve probably gleaned, the operation doesn’t go as planned. Oh, they get the Enigma. But then the German resupply sub shows up, torpedoes the American sub, kills Bill Paxton and Bon Jovi and pretty much everyone else. Their only option is to hop back on U-571 and try to escape to the UK. (Because IT’S SO MUCH CLOSER THAN AMERICA.)
What follows is AWESOME. I love movies with confined settings and ticking clocks, and this is one of the best. There’s hardly a moment onscreen for the rest of the movie that isn’t suspenseful and tense. So, now you’re probably wondering…
Why it’s bad:
I could text my youngest sister right now with a particular line of dialogue from U-571, and we would probably spend the next hour spinning equally awful lines back and forth to each other. The dialogue in “U-571” is so, so bad. It’s like a parody of a comic book from the 40s. It’s so bad it circles back to being hilarious. And not just one or two lines, either. ALL of it.
Don’t believe me? Okay:
- “Drop it, you Nazi sumbitch!”
- “His body’s gonna save our lives!”
- Harvey Keitel, while checking the gauges on the German submarine: “Everything’s in German!”
- And, my personal favorite, quoted in my head at least once a day: “This is not a GODDAMN DEMOCRACY!”
(I feel like I’m not doing that line justice. I really need someone to develop a McConaughey font.)
Speaking of that clip, the character Mazzola (the one trying to get Rabbit to shoot down the plane) almost ruined this movie for me. He’s just so over-the-top awful. The only useful thing he does in the entire movie is dump valuable exposition to the other sailors (and the audience) about how deep-sea water pressure works, and he can’t even do that without wasting a fresh egg and mispronouncing “Norfolk.” He’s so awful that when he’s in a death match with U-571’s lone German survivor, I was actually pulling for the German. He made me root for a Nazi.
And while I appreciate how straightforward “U-571” is, there are way too many on-the-nose moments. You know, where a character says something that is set up for an immediate payoff. This happens constantly. Character: “Wow, I can’t believe this boat is holding up to all this pressure!” Boat: “Springs massive leaks.” Character: “Hey, I think we got under those depth charges!” Depth charge: “KABOOM!” Or, “I think I can get to that critical underwater thingy without drowning!” -> Drowns. You’d think at some point the characters would make this connection and start saying things like, “Hey, I think were about to sink and our last torpedo is definitely NEVER going to work!”
Why I love it:
I fricking LOVE “U-571,” I do. I feel kind of cheesy watching it, but there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good rah-rah movie that makes you want to high-five at the end. (Note: British people do not appear to have this reaction. Because history.)
What I love the most is that, as I said, it’s straightforward. All of the stakes are clear. Not just the over-arching plot (capture the code machine so we can beat the Nazis), but at every step along the way. What makes a good adventure movie, at least for me, is having smaller challenges to focus on throughout the film, like a ladder the characters have to keep climbing. At every rung of the “U-571” ladder, a person could walk in off the street and understand not just the objective, but what has to happen for the characters to reach that objective. Get to the German U-boat. Get away from the other German U-boat. Get the torpedo tubes working. Find that leak and shut it off. Dive under the depth charges.
The scene where McConaughey’s Lt. Tyler lays out his big second-half-of-the-movie escape plan is one of my favorite movie scenes ever. For real. Basically: we will do this, then this, finally this – victory! He even draws a picture! I love it!
Speaking of Tyler, this really is his story in terms of the emotional arc. Again, his personal stakes are laid right out on the table. Early in the movie, Tyler is pissed because his superior, Bill Paxton, scuttled his promotion. Paxton tells him he’s not ready for a command, and he won’t be until he is capable of ordering one of his sailors to certain death. I already know you’re brave, he says, but you can’t be a leader until you can make that kind of decision without hesitating. Annnnnd, guess what Tyler finally finds himself able to do before the end of the movie.
McConaughey pulls all of this off ably. I hate action movie leads that are infallible and stoic. Instead, McConaughey walks a fine line. His character is learning to trust his judgment, but at the end you can tell he’s thinking to himself, “Holy shit, that actually worked.” “U-571” was McConaughey’s first big movie after the infamous 1999 conga drum arrest, so we can probably credit it with helping Hollywood remember why they loved him.
Verdict: don’t watch this in a history class (or with a British person), but grab a pizza and some buddies and you’ll have fun. And I promise you will be quoting it for days…..OMG that dialogue.