Now I couldn’t have a week of watching DTV action movies without at least one appearance from Nicolas Cage could I? It’s not like I’m short on options, the hokily titled USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage is Cage’s fourth (of five) movies out this year. In this fact-based would-be World War II epic, Cage plays real-life Captain Charles McVay, who commands the titular cruiser USS Indianapolis.
He’s selected for a special secret mission ordered directly from the president, in which he is to deliver two parts of the atomic bomb that would ultimately be used in Hiroshima. In voice-over, he relays that his mission is essentially “a glorified postal service” but also that due to their lack of other protection, it’s extremely dangerous should they encounter a Japanese submarine.
For a film going straight to streaming, this boasts a surprisingly high budget, but apparently most of that was spent on actors and sets, as while the boats all look professional the CGI is of a very low level when it’s used. A lot of the younger crew members populating the ship are completely indistinct, but Tom Sizemore has a more memorable supporting role, though Thomas Jane later shows up in a disappointingly unremarkable capacity.
The mission is initially successful, and the film spends some time with the crew getting up to uninteresting hijinks on board before they’re struck with a torpedo while patrolling the Philippine Sea. We then get a moderately exciting set-piece in which the film looks to be directly trying to channel Titanic. Seeing people falling all over the tilting deck as the ship sinks, along with the sinking ship breaking in two can’t help but conjure memories of James Cameron’s world-conquering epic. It’s a shame the similarities are so blatant as it could have been a fairly powerful sequence in its own right had it not aped Titanic so shamelessly. The film is directed by Mario Van Peebles, who was once quite prominent in the nineties but has apparently been working mainly in TV movies now.
USS Indianapolis has something up its sleeve that Titanic didn’t though, literally the exact moment Cage hits the water a large shark is shown ominously in the water behind him. Within minutes of that we get an unintentionally hilarious shark attack – combining obviously fake CGI with real shark footage that’s like something out of a completely different movie. Of course, silly killer shark movie are relatively common in the made-for-TV/straight to DVD world, and the idea of a Cage vs Killer sharks sounds pleasingly bonkers; but you can’t just have an hour of serious-minded, true life war disaster movie and then turn into a creature feature.
The sharks are there to stay though, as the film segues into being about a group of survivors being stranded at sea we get another attack that looks to be trying to get a big horror-movie jump scare, but again just comes across as unintentionally funny in the midst of this tonally serious survival drama. Later we get another similar one immediately after a scene with a dying soldier that’s trying to be emotionally powerful, it’s just baffling how they thought this combination of high-minded war drama and B-movie killer shark nonsense would play out.
Cage is never really the focus in these scenes, and it’s far more of an ensemble piece. He gives occasional voiceovers that don’t tell us much that isn’t clear anyway and are infrequent enough that whenever they re-appear you’re suddenly reminded that this film has them. The film isn’t all from Cage’s perspective anyhow so they come across as a product of inexperienced screenwriting more than anything else. Cage opts to give a very straightforward performance here that’s probably in fitting with a real-life Captain. It might have been fun to see a manic Cage take on sharks but this isn’t the surrounding film to do it.
The film looks to be ending a whole half-hour before it actually does, and initially looks to be giving us an unnecessary epilogue, however this section actually contains what is by far the film’s most interesting scene. Mild spoilers I guess, but McVay winds up being court marshalled after being rescued, and the court actually summons the Japanese Naval Commander who sunk the Indianapolis. Afterwards McVay has an exchange with the Commander about their relative actions that’s quite powerful; it’s the kind of moment that we rarely see in war films that, in a better movie would have been really noteworthy. However, the fact my the two main takeaways form this are that exchange and some amusing shark-related deaths tells you how bafflingly misguided some of the tonal choices this film makes are.