The torpedoes, missiles and testosterone levels all are on red alert in “Crimson Tide,” the latest exercise in high-tech macho from director Tony Scott and producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. A brink-of-nuclear-disaster thriller set aboard a tension-fraught U.S. submarine, this is a boy’s movie all the way, with enough expensive military hardware and tough-guy power plays to appeal to teenagers of all ages. This first official summer release will start off at attack speed and make direct B.O. hits for the first two or three weeks. After that, its less-than-“Top Gun” quotient of dazzle, distinct lack of femme appeal and competition from subsequent heavy hitters will cause a gradual commercial submersion to potent but not blockbuster levels.
While skillfully crafted to maximize visual excitement and dramatic fireworks through the first hour, relentlessly paced pic sports a fancy new package for a rather shopworn doomsday scenario that unravels to increasingly familiar effect as the finale breathlessly approaches.
Although the raft of antecedents won’t bother kids, those with 30-year memories will readily recall “Dr. Strangelove,””Fail-Safe” and, specifically, “The Bedford Incident,” which fea-
tured Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier shipboard during an international incident, not to mention the more recent Steven Seagal starrer “Under Siege.”
Those expecting an underwater “Top Gun” will get something notably more sober here, for while there is one instance of boys-will-be-boys towel-flicking, the mood is set not by sexy rock songs but by some effectively portentous male choral music overlaying a philosophical tug-of-war between a veteran, by-the-book captain and his new, Harvard-educated executive officer, who ultimately feels compelled to lead a mutiny when it looks as though the captain will start a nuclear holocaust without full knowledge of the situation above water.
Exposition is handled with terrific dispatch, as a pseudo-CNN news report lays out the state of things in Russia, where some nationalist right-wingers initiate a civil war and grab control of a Pacific Coast nuclear base. With the rebels threatening to launch a barrage of nuclear missiles against the United States unless the central government gives in, the U.S. sends the USS Alabama toward the hot zone, with every chance that the sub will be ordered to fire its own nuclear warheads at Russia if the lunaticsmake good on their promise.
At the helm is Capt. Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman), one of the Navy’s few battle-tested commanders, a man of the old school who enjoys a sophisticated philosophical discussion but expectstotal and unquestioning obedience in his men. Known for chewing up and spitting out executive officers, he engages for the fateful voyage Lt. Cmdr. Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington), a man well versed in the lore of war but never tested under fire.
When an initial message ordering a nuclear attack arrives, the entire crew nervously prepares to launch World War III, even while being pursued by a rogue Russian submarine. But when a second command, which may or may not indicate a change of orders, is cut off before it is entirely received, Ramsey decides to go ahead with the strike anyway, prompting Hunter to take over the ship and err on the side of caution by holding back until radio contact can be restored.
Up to this halfway point, “Crimson Tide” is an exciting, efficient, straight-ahead thriller, with a scarily plausible premiseand good tighten-the-screws plotting. But as the inevitable moment of truth arrives, is aborted, arrives again and is once more postponed, and as command of the ship seesaws back and forth, plausibility becomes strained and the story comes to feel waterlogged.
By the end, pic has cried wolf too many times, its power to excite deflated. What seemed like crackling fiction inspired by a credible projection of the near-future devolves into a series of comic-book-style standoffs of dubious believability.
Still, director Scott makes the most of his cramped surroundings, keeping the action and the camera hopping.
Although more information could have been provided about their characters, Washington and Hackman create worthy adversaries, men of principle who recognize early on that they’re likely to cross swords one day. Virtually all-male supporting cast registers well, and while the beefcake angle so shamelessly exploited by “Top Gun” is minimized here, the omnipresent phallic imagery is played to the hilt. Jason Robards appears in an unbilled cameo as a top-ranking admiral.
Tech credits are first-cabin all the way.