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Suspense under the sea in 'U-571'

You can't keep a good submarine story down. That's a message Hollywood rediscovers from time to time, and it's not surprising that the idea is surfacing again, since stories about World War II recaptured the public imagination when "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Thin Red Line" invaded the wide screen last year.

U-571 is less ambitious. It concentrates on claustrophobic thrills found in an underwater vessel crammed with quarrelsome seamen, under fire from an enemy destroyer, headed for depths way beyond its limit, and spurting water from every rivet-lined seam. Much of the action strains credulity, but there's no denying the excitement the best scenes provide.

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The story takes its cue from real-life Allied missions designed to capture German encryption secrets. The movie's own credits acknowledge that most of these were carried out by British forces, but Hollywood loves its own, so the heroes of "U-571" are Americans all the way. They've been ordered to disguise their submarine as a Nazi vessel, seize a top-secret encoding device from an actual U-boat, and make sure no Germans escape to tell the tale. Things go well up to a point, but then the Yanks find themselves inhabiting a German sub and unsure how it works.

"U-571" was directed by action specialist Jonathan Mostow, whose 1997 thriller "Breakdown" was one of the most exciting directorial debuts in recent memory. He resorts to a lot of old tricks - cut like crazy between worried faces and overheated gauges inching into the red zone - but he uses them with conviction and pizazz, helped by virile cinematography and snappy editing.

Matthew McConaughey as a skipper out of his depth and Harvey Keitel as a combat-savvy officer make strong impressions in the crash-and-bang adventure. "U-571" is a sturdy specimen of its waterlogged breed. But when is Mostow going to take on a cinematic mission that can match his talent?

* Rated PG-13; contains much war-movie violence.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society