Earlier this week I wrote about Tony Scott’s 1993 film True Romance. The second part of my little personal Tony Scott in memoriam double-feature was his 1995 film, Crimson Tide. I saw Crimson Tide back in theaters when it was originally released, but I haven never re-watched it since. I remember being really excited to see it, but I also remember that I was a bit disappointed by the finished film. It just wasn’t nearly as good as The Hunt for Red October, a submarine film that I adored, and to which I was constantly comparing Crimson Tide in my mind while watching the film. I’ve never seen Crimson Tide since then, but I know a lot of people who love the film, so I’ve been meaning to re-watch it for quite some time.
The film is better than I remembered it being, but I definitely agree with high school me in thinking that, when compared to the masterful Hunt for Red October, it doesn’t compare favorably. There’s something a little too simplistic about Crimson Tide, a little too action-movie silly as opposed to truly dramatic. The film isn’t a check-your-brain-at-the-door piece of Hollywood stupidity, but there are definitely some choices (in the pacing, in the editing, in the music) that indicate that the film wants more to be an exciting action-adventure than a realistic drama. Now, that’s not necessarily bad — I LOVE a great action adventure! But that also puts a ceiling on the film’s potential right from the get-go.
The heart of the film is in the conflict between Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington. Both men are terrifically cast, and the whole film rests on the idea of these two powerhouses colliding with one another in the middle of a potentially world-ending nuclear showdown scenario. Mr. Hackman plays Captain Ramsey, commander of the U.S. nuclear sub the U.S.S. Alabama (and was it Mr. Scott or Quentin Tarantino, who performed an uncredited re-write on the film’s script, who chose the name Alabama, which was also so memorably the name of Patricia Arquette’s character in True Romance?). Captain Ramsey is an experienced veteran of naval combat, experienced in the ways of war, and conditioned with a fairly simplistic soldier’s mentality of following his orders without question. Denzel Washington plays the Alabama’s newly-assigned X.O., Lt. Commander Hunter. Hunter is an intelligent and well-regarded officer, but he’s never been in combat and his analytical approach puts him into immediate conflict with Captain Ramsey. Things come to a head when the Alabama receives orders to launch a nuclear first-strike on Russian rebels, but then receives another message that is cut off when the sub comes into conflict with a Russian sub. Captain Ramsey is determined to carry out the nuclear strike, but Lt. Commander Hunter worries that the situation might have changed and that the incomplete order might have been to abort their strike. He wants to confirm the orders before launching their nuclear payload, while Captain Ramsey refuses to let anything interrupt what he feels is their confirmed mission.
A confrontation between Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington, two phenomenal actors, is a great concept around which to build a movie, and when the two men go at it Crimson Tide catches fire. Neither actor gives an inch, and their scenes together are electric.
The central problem with Crimson Tide, though, is that the two characters are never really on equal footing with the audience. We first meet Denzel Washington’s character at home with his wife and kids, which seems designed to immediately cause the audience to like him and root for him. We first meet Gene Hackman’s Captain Ramsey when Washington’s Lt. Commander Hunter does, and while Ramsey doesn’t do anything terrible in that meeting, he’s sort of a smirky prick to Hunter. So we, the audience, take an immediate dislike to him. This makes Ramsey unquestionably the bad guy in the film, and there’s really never any question that Hunter will ultimately be proved correct in the two men’s argument. Wouldn’t the film have been more interesting had we started out LIKING Gene Hackman’s Captain Ramsey? Maybe instead of his being a saint, it could have been Captain Hunter who, for example, insisted on subjecting the Alabama’s crew to rigorous drills? Then, when the two men come into conflict, there wouldn’t have been such a clear good guy-bad guy schism.
That’s what I mean about Crimson Tide being a little too simplistic for my taste. But that being said, there’s a heck of a lot to enjoy in the film. Quentin Tarantino’s uncredited re-write shines through throughout the film, most specifically in the crew of the Alabama’s love of discussing movies (when we first meet most of the senior staff, they are subjecting one another to a movie-trivia game while on a bus taking them to the ship) and comic-books (however unrealistic and ridiculous it might be, it always tickles me that two crew-men get into an argument about whose depiction of the Silver Surfer was superior, Jack Kirby or Moebius). (For the record, Hunter’s support of Kirby is 100% correct. Though his Star Trek conversation with the communications officer is nowhere near as geekily cool. His “you know that episode where the Klingons were gonna blow up the Enterprise?” is so generic it sounds like it was written by someone who’s never actually seen an original Star Trek episode. But I digress…)
The underwater action in the film is solid, and more importantly the character-based pyrotechnics on board the Alabama during the film’s second half keep the tension ratcheting up and up and up for the audience. I like the twists and turns of the maneuverings on board the sub between Ramsey and Hunter and their various supporters, and while the idea of a mutiny on board a U.S. nuclear sub might be far-fetched, the film certainly seems to depict the realities of operations on board a sub with a high degree of versimilitude.
As with True Romance, Tony Scott’s keen eye towards casting really helps elevate the film. Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington are both perfectly cast as the leads, as I wrote above, but the well-cast supporting roles really elevates the material. None of these characters, on the surface, seem nearly as interesting as the supporting roles in True Romance, but because each character is so well cast, they each become distinct creations. There’s never any confusion as to who’s who, and while we don’t get to know any of them that well, they certainly each seem like distinct, unique individuals.
George Dzundza (The Deer Hunter) is probably my favorite as the Chief of the Boat (called COB by all the characters in the film). He’s the sole senior officer who seems to side with Hunter, not because he likes Hunter but because this by-the-book officer objects to Ramsey’s attempts to remove his X.O. in the middle of a crisis. I had totally forgotten that Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings) was in this film, playing the weapons officer Weps. Weps is a weak character, vacillating between his support of Captain Ramsey and Lt. Hunter, but Mr. Mortensen creates a likable, human officer caught in an impossible situation. James Gandolfini follows up his great performance as Virgil in True Romance with a larger role here as Lt. Dougherty, Rocky Carroll (Chicago Hope, NCIS) plays Lt. Westergaurd, and Matt Craven (A Few Good Men, From the Earth to the Moon) plays Communications Officer Lt. Zimmer. Ricky Schroder and Steve Zahn pop up in small roles, and you’ve just got to love the uncredited appearance of Jason Robards (All The President’s Men) at the very end as the head of the Board of Inquiry investigating the events on-board the Alabama. This would have been a significantly weaker film had a less-memorable group of actors been cast in these supporting roles.
Crimson Tide may not be a great film, but it’s certainly a fun romp and a better-than-average action-adventure film. With the star-power of Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington burning at a high wattage, along with some great Quentin Tarantino dialogue and a taut pace created by Tony Scott’s direction, this is certainly a fun film to watch. I’m glad to have seen it again.