Dir: Kathryn Bigelow. US. 2002. 138mins

The independently-financed submarine epic K-19: the Widowmaker is one of those rare breed of potential summer blockbusters that demands an investment of thought from its audience before the pay-offs kick in. It's set against the backdrop of Soviet Russia in 1961, features all-Russian characters, tells a fact-based story about a radiation leak on a nuclear submarine and blurs the line between hero and villain in a post-Sept 11 world where clear-cut heroes are all the rage. But once you've accepted all that, K-19 delivers the goods as an effective and accomplished naval button-pusher of the Crimson Tide, Hunt For Red October or U-571 school. A reassuringly grand summer entertainment, it will ultimately provide more old-fashioned excitement to male audiences than flyweight offerings like Men In Black II or Austin Powers In Goldmember.

K-19 opens in the US today, and financier Intermedia and studio partner Paramount Pictures should anticipate a solid money-spinner with considerable value in ancillary markets and as a long-lasting library title.

Contrary to early concerns, it will not suffer from the problems which befell the Cuban missile crisis feature13 Days, which also told a historical tale but from a political perspective. Rather, like Apollo 13, K-19 focuses on good men under pressure and the courage and compassion they deploy to overcome extreme situations.

The film's commercial value is of course enriched by the fact that is played out by eminently watchable screen naturals Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. Direction comes from the excellent Kathryn Bigelow, who brings a kinetic energy and intelligence to the proceedings which neither insults nor assaults the audience a la Jerry Bruckheimer.

Ford segues into a more challenging role here. He is as far away from Jack Ryan or Indiana Jones as could be imagined, playing the harsh and impenetrable Captain Alexi Vostrikov, ordered to take command of nuclear missile sub K19 away from its original captain (Neeson). It's an older, more complicated part for the superstar who struggles with a Russian accent but more than makes up for it with sheer star charisma.

Neeson has consistently proved that he is a dynamic presence on screen, whether in Michael Collins, Schindler's List, Rob Roy or even Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Here, he is a potent match for Ford as the sympathetic Captain Mikhail Polenin, whose humanity and love for his crew anchors the film and gives it his heart.

The film starts against a backdrop of escalating nuclear hostilities between the USSR and the USA. The Soviet leadership is anxious to get its prototype K-19 nuclear sub at sea in order to launch a nuclear missile test off the Arctic Circle as a demonstration to the USA that it has the capacity to fight back if necessary. But crack sub captain Polenin, beloved by his men and respected by navy command, refuses to go out in the sub until it is safe and well-fitted enough to warrant such a dangerous mission. Angered at his caution, the Soviet leaders (here led fittingly by Joss Ackland) bring in the steely Vostrikov to supercede Polenin and meet the deadline. Vostrikov boards K-19 and takes her out to sea, flaws and all, on June 18, 1961.

Naturally, as in all maritime dramas of this nature, there is tension between Polenin and Vostrikov. On the way to the test site, Vostrikov makes the nervous crew undergo rigorous test drills and plunges the sub to its maximum depth, risking total disaster before successfully launching the missile.

But rather than returning to Russia, Vostrikov is then ordered to take K-19 westward to take up position as a patrol vessel 400km off the US coast between New York and Washington DC. And on July 4, 1961, just as the new surprise mission is underway, disaster really strikes. The atomic submarine's reactor cooling system starts to leak and the reactor core starts to heat up. If it heats up to 1,000 degrees, then the reactor could melt and cause a nuclear explosion. So close is the sub to a NATO base in the Atlantic that the USA could construe the explosion as a Russian attack and retaliate on Soviet cities.

Out of reach of radio contact with Moscow, Vostrikov, Polenin and the inexperienced reactor officer Radtchenko (a touching performance by Peter Sarsgaard) must come up with a way of cooling the reactor core while necessitating fatal exposure of their men and themselves to radiation poisoning.

Bigelow's muscular direction does notmerely recreate the claustrophobic nature of a submarine. She so carefully details the geography of the various hot zones on board that the audience can virtually feel the radiation spread from section to section. Her expert handling of the horrific realities of a nuclear accident fuses an intensity onto the drama which the mere fiction of Crimson Tide or Red October cannot rival. That the film tells a little known true story which resulted in the deaths of 20 men from radiation poisoning adds a haunting dimension to the thrills.

But Bigelow does not forget for a moment that she's making a crowd-pleasing thriller. In the end, the Commies back in Moscow are the villains and the honourable men on board K19 the heroes fighting for peace and for the survival of all. An epilogue in 1989 sees the surviving crew gather to honour their dead for the first time since the voyage. As Ford, Neeson et al labour to emote under their old-age makeup, lumps will hit the throats of audiences around the world, satisfied that the good guys finally won through and saved the world - as they always do.

Prod cos: National Geographic Feature Films, Palomar Pictures, First Light, IMF, Intermedia
US dist:
Paramount Pictures
Int'l sales:
Exec prods:
Harrison Ford, Nigel Sinclair, Moritz Borman, Guy East
Joni Sighvatsson, Christine Whitaker, Edward S Feldman, Bigelow
Christopher Kyle, based on a story by Louis Nowra
Jeff Cronenweth
Walter Murch
Prod des:
Karl Juliusson, Michael Novotny
Klaus Badelt
Main cast:
Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard, Joss Ackland, Tim Woodward, Donald Sumpter