Film Reviews

War Games

With their latest offering, the post-Cold War thriller Crimson Tide, the creative team of director Tony Scott and producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer have followed their signature recipe of "fast pace, fancy visuals" that worked so well in their previous efforts, Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop 2. Unfortunately, their winning formula doesn't work so well in Crimson Tide. It desperately needs to be sent back to the kitchen; while it's quick and snazzy-looking, it's only half-baked in terms of entertainment.

About conflicting points of view rather than conflict itself, Crimson Tide's setup is more like a textbook scenario than a Tom Clancy novel: A Russian nuclear missile base has been captured by rebel factions. The U.S. deploys nuclear-missile armed submarines in case a preemptive strike is necessary. One of those subs, the USS Alabama, receives a message ordering it to launch its weapons. However, while making preparations to do just that, the Alabama simultaneously begins to receive a second message and is attacked by a Russian sub. The attack damages the Alabama's communications system, cuts short the second message and leaves the sub's commanders facing a dilemma. Do they (a) launch their weapons, since timing is crucial in a preemptive strike?; or (b) wait to repair the communications system, since the incomplete message may have rescinded the first order?

The entire weight of the film is placed on the question of which option is right, and which man supporting which option is right. Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman), the captain of the Alabama, favors choice "A." Choice "B" sounds better to Ramsey's executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington). The two men come from different schools of thought: Ramsey is an experienced captain, one of the few commanding officers out in the field who's seen a war. The Harvard-educated Hunter has no combat experience and is seeking his own command. The Alabama can't launch its missiles unless both men are in agreement. While that would seem to make choice "B" the winner by default, there's always the factor of mutiny to con-tend with.

Since there's a certain logic behind both men's thinking -- in one case a group of rebels may be allowed to launch missiles toward the U.S. unhindered, in the other case the rebels may have been routed and the destroying of a Russian installation could lead to war -- no one really plays the role of villain. Neither lead is really right, or really wrong. This sort of ambivalence may be fine in a serious film, but in a thriller good guys and bad guys are called for, and the lack of them muddles the action.

As a result, the final outcome is hollow, since the film pushes you toward the conclusion rather than builds tension around it. By the time it's revealed, another question is raised, namely, "Who cares?" Had the ethical aspects of nuclear warfare been explored more thoroughly, the textbook scenario we're presented may have been more intriguing. But given that the depth of exploration in Crimson Tide doesn't go beyond some off-color jokes about Hiroshima, the intrigue is wafer-thin.

Equally as thin are the characters. What we're given are cardboard stereotypes. Ramsey was left by his wife, has a dog named Bear and likes cigars; Hunter has a family, is fairly knowledgeable on comic books and Star Trek, and isn't particularly fond of stogies. You could find more insight in the Romance ads toward the back of this paper.

And then there's the matter of technology and realism. In a film saturated with techo-babble and military lingo, it would seem that realism is strived for. Yet the fact that a submarine must surface to fire nuclear missiles with accuracy is ignored, as is the fact that small-arms fire from anything but a shotgun would be ill advised in a sub's control room.

Although he's not credited, Pulp Fiction's Quentin Tarantino was hired to spruce up Crimson Tide's script. But while some of his pop culture riffs are exceedingly rich -- such as the bit about the Silver Surfer, a comic book superhero -- his material feels out of place. And a conversation between Ramsey and Hunter about horses seems like a carbon copy of the dialogue that Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper shared about Sicilians in the Tarantino-scripted True Romance.

Even though they don't have much to work with, the actors still manage to bring something to their roles. (And I do mean actors; this movie is just chock full of guys.) Hackman is the hands-down star; the intensity and indifference that he imbues Ramsey with makes the captain entirely lovable, even when he's sticking a gun in an innocent ensign's face to get the cooperation of an officer that he can't kill. Washington plays Hunter with enough conviction to provide Hackman a foil; if he had the older actor's seasoning, he may actually have stolen some scenes.

Director Scott doesn't err in the way of visuals; he films the action aboard so tightly that it heightens the submarine-bred sense of claustrophobia. And he's clever in how he makes things easier for those (like most of us) unfamiliar with a submarine's layout. He gives each area of the vessel its own color tone, bathing the missile room in red light, for instance, or the sonar room in blue-green. For the underwater sequences, though, Scott doesn't come up with much. There's nothing particularly special about them; in fact, they're pale stuff in contrast to what we've been shown in other big-budget deep-sea thrillers.

For all this, Crimson Tide could still have been a pleasant thriller, were it not for the fact that it's so predictable. In a movie such as this, when the sub that all the stars are on loses propulsion and threatens to sink and implode, you know that's not going to happen. The trick for the filmmaker is to take such familiar situations and do something different with them, to make the predictable new or different. Crimson Tide's creative crew fails. What you see is what you're going to get, and you know it.

Delete the cursing, and Crimson Tide might have made a decent TV movie. As it stands, your time would be better spent settling on the couch with Clancy, Connery and Baldwin and that other magenta underwater adventure, Hunt for Red October.

Crimson Tide.
Directed by Tony Scott. With Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington.
Rated R.
116 minutes.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joe Hon