"U-571" is the kind of war picture that William Holden used to star in -- the kind where he rallies his co-stars (let's say Frederic March, Mickey Rooney, Alec Guinness and Don Taylor) to outsmart the enemy, manages a few sardonic cracks and never gets his hair mussed.
Matthew McConaughey is no William Holden, but "U-571" still makes good use of his limited range in a World War II submarine thriller that is executed with efficiency and skill.
McConaughey plays Andy Tyler, a Navy lieutenant who has just been turned down for a command of his own submarine when he is called upon by his lieutenant commander, Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton) to execute an extraordinary mission: With the help of a couple of U.S. Marines, Tyler and Dahlgren will "rescue" a troubled German submarine and in the process steal a code machine called the Enigma, which the German forces use to send secret messages.
That's probably already saying too much about a movie that sets up a mood of tensile suspense from the beginning and never lets it go. Director Jonathan Mostow ("Breakdown") clearly knows how to maneuver men and special effects to create a niftily twisty thriller, and he gets good performances from his cast, who could be described as the "Not 'Saving Private Ryan' Players." (In one of the movie's most shocking plot twists, Mostow actually lets the one African-American character survive the second reel, a refreshing departure from the usual formula of bumping him off right away.)
If "U-571" is light on character development and emotion, it still accomplishes what it sets out to do, with smarts and style. After all, it's not Mostow's fault that Holden was unavailable.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, Jon Bon Jovi
Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Rated PG-13 (war violence)
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Released by Universal Pictures
Sun score * * *