DEPTH CHARGE

With the possible exception of the Empire State Building in King Kong, it's doubtful there could be a stronger phallic symbol anywhere in movies than the submarine: an oblong shape that dives into the depths, is loaded with scurrying seamen and is eager to discharge itself. Small wonder that the stars of this most butch of genres, the submarine thriller, tend to be guys like Robert Mitchum in The Enemy Below or Clark Gable in Run Silent, Run Deep. Both films and both stars are paid homage in Crimson Tide, a new sub picture from director Tony Scott. It's no slouch in the testosterone department itself, with stars Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman.

From the outside, Crimson Tide has "dumb summer movie" written all over it, but inside the theatre, it turns out to be surprisingly intelligent and tense. While Tony Scott doesn't appear to have a brain in his head, he does know how to line up a shot. Like his brother Ridley, he seems to be as good (The Hunger, True Romance) or as lousy (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II) as the script from which he's working. With Crimson Tide, he's in luck.

For all that Tony Scott pours on the garish neon colors and the sweaty machismo, he can't make Crimson Tide ridiculous because, against all probability, the film is a character study. The script, by Michael Schiffer (with, reportedly, a touchup from the uncredited hand of Quentin Tarantino), sets up the traditional conflict of the genre, a battle of wills and wits between two officers. The two leads attack the lucid, pointed dialogue with commitment.

Hackman is the tough, veteran commander of the nuclear sub Alabama (hence the otherwise meaningless title). He's contemptuous of, and threatened by, his bright, scholarly new executive officer, Washington. During a global crisis--the leader of a Russian rebellion, a nationalist based on Zhirinovsky, is on the verge of obtaining nuclear capability--Hackman receives orders to launch his missiles. Before the order can be carried out, the sub must dive out of communication range to avoid an enemy sub. At this depth, it receives a second message, garbled and incomplete, but suggesting a change in orders. Hackman obtusely insists on going ahead with his last complete order; Washington, whose consent is needed to authorize the launch, refuses to give it, and before you can say "Captain Queeg," he's relieved the enraged Hackman of duty and taken command himself.

There isn't much to the film, apart from the performances of the stars, but that's quite enough to keep Crimson Tide gripping. As the heroic, young paragon, Washington manages to be human and sympathetic without losing his marvelous poise. He's slugged on the jaw twice in a row at one point and doesn't respond--the punches seem to strengthen him. His dignified bearing is that of a natural patrician, yet when he makes references to Star Trek and the Silver Surfer, you can immediately see the nerdy little kid he probably was.

As for Hackman, he's a terrifying, imposing presence, and he lets you in on the captain's secret--that he's fairly drooling to launch his missiles, that after all these years he can no longer resist the desire to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of you-know-what. The slow rise of danger on his face as he's challenged by Washington is far more gut-wrenching than the special-effects sequences of battling subs.

Oh, yes. The reliable George Dzundza is fine as one of the officers, and the Jack Russell terrier from The Mask--or one very like him--is on hand to steal scenes. The dog gets a lot of camera time, considering the setting.--

 
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