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‘Crimson Tide’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 12, 1995


Tony Scott
Denzel Washington;
Gene Hackman;
George Dzundza;
Viggo Mortensen;
Matt Craven;
James Gandolfini
profanity and violence

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World War III is imminent as the mighty USS Alabama is launched in "Crimson Tide," an obvious, submarine-set reworking of the 1964 nuclear Armageddon drama "Fail-Safe." This time around, Earth's fate rests in the hands of two dedicated Navy officers: the Alabama's combat-seasoned Capt. Ramsey (Gene Hackman) and his untested executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Hunter (Denzel Washington).

But for all its high-tech and phallic imagery, the movie isn't really an action thriller but a somber meditation on a military changing of the guard. Ramsey, a salty man of action, came of age at the onset of the atomic era. Hunter, on the other hand, is New Navy: Harvard- educated, sensitive to his men's needs and extremely careful with nuclear weapons. Their fierce war of wills keeps this boat afloat.

"Crimson Tide" reunites "Top Gun" producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer with director Tony Scott, but it is neither as flashy nor as vapid as that Tom Cruise flick. In fact, it's surprisingly humanistic considering the team's affection for hardware. There are plenty of spiffy boy's toys aboard the 'Bama, a six-story submarine with a bellyful of torpedoes and Trident missiles. What's scarce here is action.

Scott, whose last film was the crackling "True Romance," sets a relentlessly even pace once the story gets underway. But first, a couple of pseudo-newscasts by CNN's Richard Valeriani set the scene from an aircraft carrier off the Pacific coast of Russia, where right-wing rebels have captured a missile base. Their leader threatens to fire upon the United States, and the Alabama sets sail for the hot spot.

Capt. Ramsey, whose executive officers last about as long as Murphy Brown's secretaries, is clearly not happy with Lt. Cmdr. Hunter. While Hackman and Washington make the hostility clear with a raised eyebrow here and a pinched nostril there, the actors are also obliged to debate the morality of war as the sub plows toward Russia.

Meanwhile on the surface, the crisis escalates, and the Alabama is ordered to fire its Tridents at the rebels. As they prepare to lock, load and launch their payload, they engage a rebel vessel. This is the first true action sequence in the movie—except for a grease fire in the galley—and it's straight out of the World War II submariners' classic, "The Enemy Below."

During the dogfight, the boat receives a second, garbled message—perhaps delaying the order to fire—then loses all radio contact with command control. When Ramsey refuses to hold his fire until they can confirm the second message, Hunter does not concur. The frightened sailors and other officers are torn between the two leaders, and a mutiny seems to be looming.

While the leadership issues considered here are eternally valid, they were dramatized more effectively in both "The Caine Mutiny" and the more recent "A Few Good Men." "Crimson Tide's" confrontation is believably played, but it ends in a whimper because the writers (Michael Schiffer and a slew of script doctors) repeatedly build to, then back away from, the moment of truth. Most egregiously, the filmmakers set up a classic struggle between right and wrong and then, in a coy coda, refuse to take a stand.

Crimson Tide is rated R for profanity and violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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