Friday May 12, 1995
Don't plan on getting much sleep after seeing "Crimson Tide." It's not just that the tension, tangible enough to be eaten off a plate, is capable of squeezing out your every last breath. It's that a troubling dilemma has been placed at the heart of a crackling good piece of popular entertainment.
And if ever a picture crackled, "Crimson Tide" fits the description. Crisp as the creases in its naval officers' uniforms, this tale of seething conflicts aboard an American submarine on the eve of nuclear war is strictly by-the-numbers, but hardly ever are traditional elements executed with such panache.
Wedding a shrewd concept and a lean script to on-the-nose acting and direction, "Crimson Tide" is one of the rare times when a whole mess of commercial elements are thrown together and everything works out for the best.
Though high testosterone boy-toy films like "Crimson Tide" (especially those produced, as this one is, by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer) usually are oblivious to things like convincing writing and classy acting, this one is not, and is capped by taut performances by stars Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman and a brisk job of direction by Tony Scott.
Washington plays Lt. Cmdr. Ron Hunter, an impressively educated submarine officer first glimpsed wearing a silly hat at his daughter's birthday party. Those moments of frivolity, however, are fated not to last, as a TV news broadcast details a world in terrible crisis.
The rebellion in Chechnya has led to a civil war in Russia, and ultranationalist rebels led by one Vladimir Radchenko are attempting to capture nuclear-tipped ICBMs and threatening to use them on the United States if they succeed. "Is it as bad as it looks?" Hunter's pal Weps (Viggo Mortensen) asks. You know it is.
Hunter's assignment is with Capt. Frank Ramsey, commander of the Trident submarine USS Alabama (hence the movie's name), modestly described as "the most lethal killing machine ever devised." Persuasively played by Hackman, Ramsey is one of those tougher than tough commanders that movies specialize in, in love only with the Navy and his dog, a No. 1 who believes that aboard ship "we're here to preserve democracy, not practice it."
The relationship between these two is the fissionable core of "Crimson Tide" and one of several places where the spare Michael Schiffer script, with well-publicized additions by the impressive trio of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Towne and Steve Zaillian ("These three guys could punch up 'Hamlet,' " Schiffer told the New York Times), makes its expertise felt.
Right from their initial meeting, the best kind of movie tension, a combination of distaste and respect, bubbles up between the captain and his executive officer. Ramsey, a seat-of-the-pants combat veteran, distrusts Hunter's book learning while the younger man, though irked at being continually needled, comes to understand that the captain really does care for his men.
Obviously energizing each other in a sweet display of complementary acting, both Hackman and Washington, helped by expert supporting performances by Mortensen, the veteran George Dzundza and several others, bring their antagonism to life.
Aside from convincingly delineating character, "Crimson Tide's" script gradually builds the tension from small incidents like a fire in the galley and the unwelcome attentions of a Russian Akula class submarine until the ultimate in crises inevitably arrives.
That would be the news, transmitted via EAM, or Emergency Action Message, that those pesky rebels have captured both the ICBMs and their launch codes and are getting ready to blast the free world. The Alabama is commanded to attack the Russian bases with its own nuclear arms before it's too late. Then, as if any more tension were needed, another EAM comes in that just might countermand that order to strike, but mechanical problems break off the transmission before the message is completed.
So the dilemma, which causes Ramsey and Hunter to lock horns for a final nail-biting confrontation, is this: Do you take the time to confirm the attack message and risk having the entire United States blown away during the delay, or do you fire without confirmation and perhaps start an unprovoked nuclear war?
Helping make all this chillingly plausible is the great sense of verisimilitude "Crimson Tide" creates, both verbal and visual, including the convincing use of jargon ("zero bubble, commence hovering" is one of the more lyrical bits), the story help of sub authority Richard P. Henrick, and a combination of production design, art direction, lighting and cinematography that makes the inside of the Alabama look and feel compellingly real.
Though Tony Scott has always had the reputation of being a shooter, a director who can be counted on to make his footage look terrific, none of his other films--and that includes mindless successes like "Top Gun"--have even come close to what he has accomplished here.
Confident as ever with the visuals, Scott has added an expertness at moving plot along and a facility with actors that is both welcome and new. Whether it's a fluke or the harbinger of wonders to come, "Crimson Tide" serves as a reminder of what Hollywood professionalism can accomplish when it stays on its best behavior.
Crimson Tide, 1995. R, for strong language. A Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer production, released by Hollywood Pictures. Director Tony Scott. Producers Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer. Executive producers Bill Unger, Lucas Foster, Mike Moder. Screenplay Michael Schiffer, story by Michael Schiffer and Richard P. Henrick. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. Editor Chris Lebenzon. Costumes George L. Little. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Michael White. Art directors Donald B. Woodruff, James J. Murakami, Dianne Wager. Set designers Richard Lawrence, Nick Navarro. Set decorator Mickey S. Michaels. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. Denzel Washington as Hunter. Gene Hackman as Ramsey. Matt Craven as Zimmer. George Dzundza as Cob. Viggo Mortensen as Weps.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times