Dir. Sven Huybrechts, released DVD/Blu-Ray/download March 2021
The premise of Torpedo: U-235 – a band of Belgian resistance fighters in a captured U-boat battling the Kriegsmarine across the Atlantic to deliver fissile materials for the Manhattan Project – signals right from the off that this is not your run-of-the-mill war film.
Torpedo: U-235 is an ambitious project from Belgium that aims its torpedo tubes firmly at big-budget Hollywood fare such as U-571, and succeeds on its own terms surprisingly well. The high expectations to go beyond the domestic market are signalled with English language audio, though first-time director Sven Huybrechts doesn’t compromise on the cast, who are mostly far more familiar to Belgian audiences than they are overseas. Location shooting took place in Malta, and extensive filming was carried out with miniatures and specially built sets, making for impressively solid visuals. It was made by A-Team Productions and international distribution was by Epic Pictures, whose production credits include the fantastically titled ‘The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot’.
An audacious and brutal resistance operation sets the scene, demonstrating the team’s unique skills and determination to take the war to the occupying Germans, as well as its somewhat ramshackle nature and relaxed attitude to the rules. As a captured Wehrmacht officer finds out when he is offed in a surprising but effective manner. The resistance outfit is led by the grizzled Stan (Koen De Bouw) with his crack-shot daughter (Ella-June Henrard) in tow and an engaging collection of jokers and vagabonds. They are enlisted, at the insistence of a Belgian officer, to transport a shipment of Uranium (which, it turns out, is the U-235 of the title rather than the submarine itself) from the Congo to the US in a captured U-boat.
This comic-like set-up, amazingly, has its basis in fact: uranium from a mine in the then Belgian Congo was vital to the US nuclear weapons programme, and made up the majority of the material in the ‘Little Boy’ bomb that helped bring about the end of the Second World War. While it may stretch credibility that an effective but hard-to-manage gang of insurgents with no naval background would be trusted with this mission, the relentless action that follows will soon banish such thoughts to the back of the mind. The team is supposed to get three weeks of training from ex-U-boat skipper Franz Jäger (Thure Riefenstein), but a turn of events cuts that short, leading to a frenetic chase across the Atlantic, attempting to dodge aircraft, submarines and surface vessels as well as unfamiliar technology.
Anyone who has seen their fair share of submarine movies will be familiar with the action as it takes shape. Many moments will bring to mind The Enemy Below, The Hunt For Red October and The Abyss among others, in a mix of loving tribute and shameless imitation. But, Huybrechts keeps the tension up so expertly and blends the source material with such flair that what emerges is an enjoyably fresh addition to the sub-genre (pun intended).
The story is unashamedly far-fetched and some of the derring-do tends well to the implausible, but the relentless pace kept me on board when in the moment. There’s barely time to draw breath as the action reaches its climax in a duel with a destroyer and the audience will be left guessing right to the end. The war film tropes are all there of course – watch out for the resistance fighter talking about his hopes for a peacetime sporting career… While there are moments of comedy and the action borders on comic-book like, the genuine brutality of Nazi occupation and the human effects of atrocities are respected and never trivialised. It is to Huybrechts’ credit that he can balance these two aspects without inconsistency of tone.
Apart from a couple of unconvincing CGI shots, the visuals are frankly superb and stand with any Hollywood blockbuster. The Type VII U-boat mock-up that was originally built for U-571 is used to good effect in scenes on the surface, and some excellent model work complements this for undersea action. A cat-and-mouse battle with another submarine is a high point. A complete interior set was apparently built in a warehouse and this, with all its hissing valves and thumping diesel rockers looks and feels just like the real thing.
Torpedo: U-235 is no Das Boot or The Cruel Sea, but if you’re looking for a fun, adrenaline pumping adventure with lots of naval action, you won’t be disappointed. The film stands alongside other sub-based thrillers and cleverly highlights Belgium’s crucial role in the nuclear weapons origin story.
CW: one racist epithet
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See the trailer here