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LACK OF DEPTH

The crux of Crimson Tide is a mutiny aboard a U.S. nuclear submarine at the height of an international crisis--the stuff that huge underwater explosions and tiny ruminations on the future of the planet are made of.

This is also standard naval-war movie material.
If you let your attention wander (it's not difficult), say, between the moment that crusty, old-line Navy captain Gene Hackman blows his cigar smoke in the face of Harvard-educated subordinate Denzel Washington and the moment that a pair of maverick Russian torpedoes just barely slide by the hull of the American sub, you may have trouble remembering what picture you're watching.

The Hunt for Red October? Probably not. There's an awful lot of Tom Clancy-style technobabble here, but Sean Connery hasn't popped out onto the conning tower yet. The Bedford Incident? Maybe. The skipper is as crazy as Richard Widmark and the whole crew's on edge, but that's not Sidney Poitier. The Caine Mutiny? Nope. The shipboard paranoia feels the same, but Cap'n Hackman is obsessed with his stogie and a yappy little dog, not chrome pinballs or missing strawberries. Besides, we're below the water.

The familiar comforts of genre, lots of noise and some eye-popping special effects are the attractions of this extremely slick, unspeakably expensive blockbuster of the week. But there's not an original idea within 20,000 leagues of Michael Schiffer's swift, crackling script--it's all reheated nuclear brinksmanship and high-tech gizmos. And Hackman, who for years had a gift for elevating even bad movies, trots out another in his recent line of dangerous coots--those evil lawyers and brutal sheriffs he's been reduced to playing. Hackman has narrowed his crinkly eyes and cackled threateningly at his antagonists so often of late that it's high time somebody called his bluff. It's only a movie, after all.

Meanwhile, the Cold War's over, and that has sent the Clancys and Le Carres of pop fictiondom in pursuit of new political demons--not all of them convincing. Schiffer and co-story writer Richard P. Henrick read the papers, so they have come up with an ultranationalist Russian outlaw called Radchenko (read Zhirinovsky) who's raised a 60,000-man rebel army, started a civil war in the Caucasus and seized an ICBM base. Trumped up or not, World War III is suddenly imminent.

But not if nasty-but-noble Cap'n Hackman (actually Captain Frank Ramsey) and the steadfast crew of the U.S.S. Alabama (thus the title) have anything to say about it. They've got nukes aplenty ready to launch: Just let Bill Clinton say the word. But first, we must witness the usual series of psychological showdowns between the battle-hardened Ramsey and his smart-but-untested executive officer, Ron Hunter (Washington). The most interesting of these may be a cat-and-mouse debate in the officers' mess about the nature of war itself in the last days of the twentieth century. Still, any Annapolis freshman could probably tell us the same things.

By the sixth reel, of course, the survival of Western civilization hangs in the balance. Fine. What else is new?

Director Tony Scott (brother of Alien-meister Ridley Scott) has played groupie to the Navy before--in the fighter pilot fantasy Top Gun--and what is arguably the most affecting moment in his new movie is its most baldly patriotic one. In a driving rainstorm on a wharf at night, Captain Ramsey delivers a stirring, hard-nosed pep talk to his crew just before they sail off to uncertainty, and suddenly we can feel the goosebumps on our necks, too. After that, Scott revs his crisis-a-minute action style into high gear: A fire in the submarine's galley gives way to a botched missile drill, which segues into a fight between enlisted men, then the specter of the rebel Russian sub. After nearly disintegrating in the depths, the Alabama loses radio contact with the Navy, which muddies the issue of whether to launch its lethal "birds," which foments the Washington-led mutiny, the Hackman-inspired counter-mutiny and plenty of turmoil 950 feet down.

This is all very exciting in places, and the battle of wills between Hackman and Washington (with fellow officers George Dzundza, Viggo Mortensen and Matt Craven caught in the middle) has its high points. But Scott seems unwilling to slow his frantic pace even for a moment, and because technical writers disguised as novelists now dominate big-budget action movies, he never gives us a break from an avalanche of equipment gibberish.

What gets lost in the shuffle, of course, are the real human encounters. Oh, we get fleeting glimpses of men in crisis, but the submarine, along with its sundry bells and whistles, is the real star of the show.

In the end, it could be any submarine. Any crew. Any crisis. For all its breakneck pace and state-of-the-art gizmos and close calls with mass destruction, Crimson Tide comes up plain vanilla. You can't quite remember what you're watching.

 
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