You know where you are with submarine movies: clammily claustrophobic control rooms, hulls creaking audibly under massive pressure, sweaty men doing likewise, things going ‘PING!’ a lot. It’s considerably harder to get your bearings in this unusual, sporadically effective French sub thriller, which seems to spend as much time kicking cans on land as it does patrolling beneath the high seas.
It’s probably a trick of his film’s often dim light but first-time writer-director Antonin Baudry seems to indulge in an awful lot of landlubbing after establishing that all the really exciting stuff happens at sea. A nicely judged, meaty opening sequence introduces its key characters aboard the French sub Titan – a genius sonar specialist nicknamed ‘Golden Ears’ (François Civil), a no-nonsense XO (Omar Sy) and their hard-charging captain (Reda Kateb) – in a covert operation that threatens to go fins-up off the coast of Syria. An unidentified submarine betrays their location with a chillingly shrill signal – the titular Wolf’s Call. But what is this mysterious Wolf? And will it be important later?
Anyone who needs an answer to either of these questions wasn’t paying attention during ‘The Hunt for Red October’ or myriad other sub thrillers. Because the Wolf is out there somewhere and may be about to tip the film’s near-future world into nuclear war, with Russia up to no good and France seemingly standing alone against it. Cue a nail-gnawing game of cat-and-mouse below the waves, right? Well, yes, though not before a tension-sapping romantic subplot involving Paula Beer’s bookshop owner.
When they do eventually come, Baudry handles the submarine scenes competently enough, though without ever cranking up the tension to the levels the stakes demand. The plot, which heads off in some improbable directions, recalls ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ in a way you suspect it’s not supposed to. On the upside: it does feature possibly the greatest ever use of hold music in a movie – a moment that wouldn’t have been out of place in ‘Dr Strangelove’.