‘Crimson Tide” is a whale of a movie, an intense and a heartstopping adventure played out against the unnerving threat of nuclear annihilation.
It’s a chilling winner made even more so by powerful and exceptional performances from Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman as a chief executive officer and his captain whose personal and professional battles create a tension it would require a missile to defuse.
Tony Scott (“The Hunger,” “True Romance,” “Top Gun”) directed the movie from a screenplay by Michael Schiffer (“Lean on Me,” “Colors”) and, with the wizardry of film editor Chris Lebenzon, he has crafted an underwater thriller.
Lt. Cmdr. Ron Hunter (Washington) is gaily making a video of his young daughter’s birthday party when he happens to catch a report on CNN that rebels from the former Soviet army have seized a nuclear submarine and nuclear missile base. Within seconds, his phone rings and he’s soon dispatched for a new assignment on the USS Alabama, a submarine with substantial nuclear firepower.
Hunter serves under Capt. Frank Ramsey (Hackman), a seasoned combat officer who travels with imported cigars, classical music and his frisky Jack Russell terrier, who’s allowed to urinate on the walkways of the sub.
The two officers bring different philosophies of war. For Ramsey, the enemy is clear and you play to win. For Hunter, the enemy is harder to grasp, because, he says, “In the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself.”
These philosophies clash when the sub is ordered to launch its nuclear missiles against the rebel base before the rebels fire the ICBMs they now control. Complicating matters is a rogue sub in the same area as the Alabama and a message that comes in - and is interrupted - just as the enemy sub fires on the Alabama.
With a fragmented message, Hunter wants to play it by the book: Find out what the message says before firing the missiles, because it might be an order to abort.
Ramsey, however, is combat-ready and primed for aggression: Follow the original orders, even if it means the start of a global nuclear war.
Caught in the middle are the other officers and crew members, who must either follow newcomer Hunter’s lead under military regulations or stick with their captain, who has been relieved of duty.
If this sounds anything like “The Caine Mutiny,” forget it. Ramsey is no strawberrycounting Queeg; he’s far from loony. What’s scary, though, is how someone in the military can cling to a rigid chain of command and not worry about the consequences.
You can pretty much figure out what’s going to happen, but no matter. The drama is tight, the dialogue crisp.
Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is superb, from the torrents of rain before the Alabama gets under way to the almost suffocating interiors. Wolski creates an endless grace with the sub’s initial dive. And when Ramsey stands at the bridge inhaling the beauty of the ebbing landscape and endless sea and says before going below, “This is the best part,” you understand.
Make sure you see this movie at a theater equipped with Dolby Stereo, because the sound is terrific. Planes taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier almost bring the same realistic effect as Sony IMAX.
“Crimson Tide” offers an excellent ensemble cast in support, including George Dzundza as the chief of boat who sticks by Hunter; Viggo Mortensen, Hunter’s pal who must make a moral choice in the end; Lillo Brancato, Jr., the young star of Robert De Niro’s excellent “A Bronx Tale,” who plays the radio whiz kid; and James Gandolfini, as the hothead supply officer.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Crimson Tide” Location: East Sprague, Lyons and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Tony Scott, starring Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, Matt Craven, George Dzundza, Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, Rocky Carroll, Jaime P. Gomez, Michael Milhoan Running time: 1:53 Rating: R