The makers of “Police Academy” and “Major League” team up to take on the submarine corps in “Down Periscope,” and the result is a testosterone comedy that’s crude fun, with a pinch of corn-pone morality. It’s good-natured, innocuous frivolity that should raise a few smiles and generate good but not great spring box office.
“Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer is Tom Dodge, an unflappable career Navy officer offered one last chance to makegood. Given a diesel sub and a motley crew, he’s shackled with the unenviable task of outwitting faster, more powerful nuclear boats in a series of war games.
Adm. Dean Winslow (Rip Torn) believes Dodge has the mettle for the task. But Adm. Yancy Graham (Bruce Dern) feels, not without justification, that his past record is a stain on the military. He’s hellbent on seeing Dodge fail and does his level best to stack the deck against him.
Both director David S. Ward and co-scripter Hugh Wilson have demonstrated a real affinity for misfits in the past. Their raw recruits have worn baseball jerseys, police uniforms and zoot suits. But they and co-writers Andrew Kurtzman and Eliot Wald appear to have run dry on fresh ideas here. The seamen include a blubbery cook, a frazzled electrician and a zoned-out sonar operator, and none provides more than a single, obvious joke. Added to the mix is a female officer on board — we are told — as an experiment.
Precious little occurs in the course of the chase and pursuit. There’s a surprising lack of tension and the jokes tend to be profane or vulgar. Yet the familiarity of the situation, combined with Grammer’s sang-froid and “Frasier”-like pronouncements, are oddly pleasing.
Virtually every element of “Down Periscope” is kept on an even keel. Its performances are low-key, the style unobtrusive. Ward simply seems to have set a direct course and steadfastly maintained his bearing.
Grammer is a confident though uninspired skipper. His very presence tends to subdue such seasoned vets as Dern and Torn, while normally kinetic performers like Rob Schneider fluctuate between being loud and downright obsequious. It’s not much of a range, but the film never aspires to be more than a fleeting diversion amid so much flotsam and jetsam in the multiplex.