Operation Seawolf review: nice Nazis? No thanks!

At a time when anti-Semitic extremists are storming the U.S Capitol, running for office, and declaring war on Jewish people via social media, it might not be the best time for a movie that expects you to sympathize with Nazis. And yet, that hasn’t stopped Operation Seawolf from sailing into theaters and on-demand streaming services this month.

The film, which follows the crew of a German U-boat during the waning days of World War II, casts Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV) as German war hero Capt. Hans Kessler, who’s ordered to lead the Nazis’ remaining U-boats on a desperate (and likely fatal) mission to attack the U.S. on its own soil. As he and his crew make their way toward New York City in one final bid to turn the tide of war, Kessler finds himself struggling with both the internal politics of the ship and his own sense of duty as the Third Reich crumbles around him.

Sure, Operation Seawolf would be a tough sell even if every other aspect of the film was top-notch, but the flaws in the film go well beyond its problematic protagonists, and ultimately leave this U-boat drama dead in the water.

dolph lundgren holds onto a pipe inside a u-boat in a scene from operation seawolf.

The devils you know

Written and directed by Steven Luke, Operation Seawolf casts Lundgren alongside Andrew Stecker (Come Out Fighting) as an ambitious lieutenant aboard Kessler’s ship and Frank Grillo (Boss Level) as Cmdr. Race Ingram, the American officer determined to thwart the Nazi U-boats’ mission.

Lundgren leads the film’s cast, and does a decent job of holding up his side of the plot, even when much of the story’s architecture feels as flimsy as a soggy tissue. To his credit, his grizzled veteran even manages to seem relatable now and then as he tries to reconcile his responsibilities to both the mission and his crew with his own disillusionment with Nazi ideology.

Just when you begin to feel something for the characters, however, all it takes is an offhand “Heil Hitler!” to remind you that they are all, indeed, Nazis. That reminder — repeated early and often — is enough to sever any emotional connection with them and their predicament, and effectively prevents any investment in their collective fate or the saga itself.

That’s not to suggest it’s impossible to present sympathetic characters who also happen to be Nazis. Taika Waititi recently did exactly that with the brilliantly dark satire Jojo Rabbit, while Wolfgang Petersen pulled it off decades earlier in 1981’s Oscar-nominated U-boat thriller Das Boot. And as much as Operation Seawolf tries to be Das Boot, it simply doesn’t measure up.

dolph lundgren evaluates his crew in a scene from operation seawolf.

No sense at all

Outside of Lundgren and Stecker, Grillo is the only other Operation Seawolf cast member with an interesting part to play in the film’s janky, plodding story, but the talented actor feels criminally misused in the film.

Grillo has no shortage of charisma, but the film relegates him to a literal desk job. His character alternates between giving orders while examining reports at his desk and giving orders while looking at a map of the ocean near his desk, and the role offers little reason for the Captain America: Winter Soldier actor to be in the film beyond an excuse to put his name and face on the marketing material.

As the only member of the U-boat’s crew that Kessler interacts with in any meaningful way, Stecker’s bitter lieutenant has potential, but it goes largely unrealized in the film’s confusing narrative. His character’s arc has him vying for control of the ship with Kessler, having a mental breakdown, receiving some wisdom from Kessler that reverses the course of their relationship, and eventually becoming the captain’s heir apparent.

It’s a confusing arc, and just one of many perplexing elements in Operation Seawolf, a film that occasionally seems to have taken inspiration from horror films by peppering its cast with characters who should know better making mind-boggling decisions and taking actions that completely contradict everything we’ve been led to believe about them up to that point. U-boats staffed by some of the German navy’s finest crews accidentally run into ships, for example, while characters obsessed with duty and the safety of their crew suddenly decide to disobey orders and and sail into danger on a whim.

And through it all, Operation Seawolf seems determined to make you sympathize with the plight of its characters, who are — in case you need a reminder — Nazis on a mission to launch missiles into the middle of Manhattan.

frank grillo leans over a map in a scene from operation seawolf.

Do you even know history, bro?

In what might best be described as an unfortunate decision to not read the room, Operation Seawolf opts not to spend any time whatsoever on the Allied forces tasked with stopping the U-boats headed to New York. The U.S. forces responsible for stopping what would have been a catastrophic attack on American soil are limited to a few minutes of screen time, with Grillo reading reports and barking commands ,and a few short scenes featuring The Great War actor Hiram A. Murray portraying a fictionalized version of real-world Navy officer Samuel L. Gravely Jr., captain of submarine-hunting patrol ships on the U.S. coast.

Rather than explore how Allied forces were able to stop the attack on Manhattan, Operation Seawolf focuses on the internal drama playing out aboard Kessler’s U-boat, with a frustrating amount of attention on the sort of father-son, mentor-mentee dynamic playing out between Kessler and Stecker’s angry, impulsive lieutenant. That the film culminates with the crew of the U-boat debating whether to follow through with the attack despite Hitler’s death and the surrender of Nazi forces only makes the film’s desire to have you connect with the crew more perplexing.

Even audiences who had found something to sympathize with in the U-boat crew’s experiences up to that point would be hard-pressed to maintain that emotional connection when the characters — again, Nazis — begin discussing the merits of sending a missile into one of the world’s largest cities as a final “screw you” to Allied forces.

From its confusing narrative to its frustrating casting choices and questionable storytelling decisions, Operation Seawolf takes an interesting premise — the dramatization of a very real, important moment in the waning days of World War II — and manages to do all the wrong things with that material in bringing it to the screen. It’s a shame, because the story behind Operation Seawolf (both the German side of it and the U.S. Navy’s “Operation Teardrop,” which stopped the U.S. coast from being attacked) feels like one that’s worth telling.

Although there’s probably never a good time to deliver a sympathetic film about Nazis, we’ve seen just such a seemingly impossible feat accomplished on more than one occasion. Unfortunately, Operation Seawolf isn’t able to replicate that formula, and ultimately delivers a disappointingly mediocre film wrapped in a frustratingly tone-deaf approach to its subject matter.

Written and directed by Steven Luke, Operation Seawolf is currently available in theaters and via on-demand services, and will premiere digitally October 25.

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