Superstar badasses Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman face off in this better-than-you-think submarine drama. The de rigeur Cold War setting has been updated for this story, which involves some business about Russian rebels seizing a military base and thereby re-igniting the nuclear paranoia that served so many pre-Reagan era thrillers so-well. The exposition of this drama, embodied in some bogus CNN clips near the beginning and end of the picture, is humdrum at best. But once the proceedings duck underwater, there are meatier issues to be explored, including theories of war, threats to mutiny, and just what it means to really get on Hackman's bad side.
Harvard graduate Ron Hunter (Washington) is recruited at the last minute to be the executive officer on a sub mission captained by Ramsey (Hackman), whose usual "XO" is ill. The two will take the U.S.S. Alabama into the waters off eastern Russia, where they may or may not be ordered to launch a preemptive strike against the Russian rebels. Before long, the sub receives an emergency order: the rebels are fueling their missiles, and the Alabama is to launch its own nukes before the enemy can get theirs off the ground. And then, wouldn't you know it, the Alabama is under attack by a rebel submarine, and loses radio contact with the U.S. just as another order is being transmitted. When the smoke clears, Hunter insists that if the Alabama launches its missiles without restoring radio contact and verifying the contents of the second message (he figures it may contain information that the rebellion has been quashed), it could be responsible for starting World War 3. But Ramsey is adamant -- in the absence of such verification, the Alabama must follow through on its last authenticated orders, and launch its missiles.
Well, it turns out that's where the fun begins, including mutiny, countermutiny, and a great shot of the two stars on the bridge together, each shouting at the top of his lungs. The remainder of the film moves so fast that there's no room to think about the twists, and I'll admit to being swept up in the macho-intellectual crises that propel the movie from plot point to plot point. I've had no use for the bulk of director Tony Scott's career -- up until his near-perfect adaptation of the Quentin Tarantino-penned True Romance (1993), which had me gassed up for about 72 hours after viewing. Like that movie, Crimson Tide plays as much off a strong ensemble of performers as it does Scott's super-glossy stylistics. QT himself stepped in to do some rewriting on this (check out the references to old sub movies and the Silver Surfer); reportedly, so did Robert Towne (Chinatown, Days of Thunder) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List, Clear and Present Danger). It's hard to tell whether all of these contributions complemented or diluted Michael Schiffer's original screenplay, but I will venture that for a movie that's all about a bunch of men locked in small metal rooms, Crimson Tide is mighty engaging.
Visually, it's a pleasure. Washington and Hackman look terrific, even bathed in the weird colored lights that codify the action from scene to scene. The special submarine effects are entirely convincing, and one particular underwater explosion is simply breathtaking. Granted, there's nothing all that special about the way Crimson Tide is put together, but it manages to rise head-and-shoulders above its throwback plotline and militaristic jargon. Even on video, Crimson Tide is a robust crowd-pleaser of a movie.