If you know your submarine thrillers, from “The Enemy Below” and “Das Boot” to “The Hunt for Red October,” you know this signature moment repeated in such movies from WWII onward. It’s the sweaty, suspenseful near silence as everyone waits breathlessly for the pronouncement of the Horchraum specialist on a UBoat or sonar tech on more modern submarines.
He squeezes his eyes, presses his headphones on a little tighter, and identifies the danger and the direction it’s coming from just by listening to the thrum of propellers, the splash (of depth charges) and the groans of metal pushing through water at speed.
The brilliant stroke of writer-director Antonin Baudry’s debut feature “The Wolf’s Call” (“Le chant du loup”) is building his movie around that figure — his intense focus, his insanely-well-tuned earss, his judgment calls.
The first modern French submarine thriller to make it into broader circulation, thanks to Netflix, it’s a New Cold War thriller with some suspense and a lot of required suspension of disbelief.
Because while the basic premise — that tensions are spiking with Russia over Syria and threats to Finland, a dangerous situation made more so by “American apathy”– there’s an awful lot of far-fetched poppycock in this “Hunt for Red October” meets “Fail Safe.”
Chanteraide, aka “Socks” (François Civil of “Frank”) has hearing so keen he can tell four bladed propellers from two, seven or eight-bladed ones. He can work out your computer password from listening to the clatter of keys as you type it in.
Heck, good luck to his new bookstore owner girlfriend (Paula Beer) whose dream is to sneak up on him. Not happening. The show-off.
The opening scene is an underwater commando retrieval mission off Syria, with hostile troops on shore, a hostile frigate and hostile helicopter and another threat “Socks” can’t make out in time to keep the Titan out of harm’s way.
His XO (executive officer) may be forgiving. He’s played by Omar Sy of the “Jurassic World” and “X-Men” franchises. But Captain Granchamp (Reda Kateb of “A Prophet”) is a bit tougher.
“For the last time Chanteraide, this is the military, not art school!”
Yes, that’s the sort of line you only hear in a FRENCH nuclear sub thriller.
Between missions, “Socks” obsesses over what he couldn’t figure out at sea, which sends him to a bookstore — how he meets his lady friend — and down the rabbit hole of the French undersea service’s politics. Are the powers that be afraid of fingering and thus provoking the Russians, or was this anomaly somebody else’s sub?
All of his digging is set against spiraling tensions, and as he puts to sea again the stakes go even higher, with the admiral informing him (in French with English subtitles) “You are the country’s life insurance.
So, no pressure.
Mathieu Kassovitz, a veteran French star who goes back to “Amelie” and many an international (“Haywire,” “Munich”) thriller, is the admiral and fills out an impressive cast for Baudry’s debut.
But some of the action beats take on a “Star Trek” degree of absurdity — a captain fetching an RPG to defend his sub, explosions underwater that don’t bring any water on board, a plot that paints its screenwriter-director into a corner he can’t clever-his-way out of.
Plenty of sub movie conventions get a fine work out — individual heroics, stoic professionalism mixed with “We’re gonna DIE” histrionics (Those French…), heroism that crosses into sacrifice.
It’s not, to my knowledge, a genre the French have taken many shots at before — at least not recently. So some blunders are to be expected.
So if Baudry takes pains to bring in technical experts early on next time, I look forward to seeing his next action pic. He takes a very clever point of view, and even if he doesn’t get everything he might have out of it, “The Wolf’s Call” (a sonar phenomenon) still manages to pull us in and at times impress.
MPA Rating: TV-14, violence, action
Credits: Written and directed by Antonin Baudry. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:55