Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 2, 2014)
Many view the films produced by Jerry Bruckheimer negatively because they tend to be somewhat brainless. Flicks like Armageddon and Beverly Hills Cop ain't exactly Shakespeare, you know? Not that there's anything wrong with that; Bruckheimer films promise lots of excitement and action, and they usually deliver the goods.
One exception to this rule comes from 1995’s Crimson Tide. While it certainly utilizes parts of the Bruckheimer formula - "A"-list cast, moody and dramatic score, etc. - it differs in a few significant ways. Top on this list is the fact that - boing! - it's not stupid. Admittedly, it doesn’t offer a complicated film like The Usual Suspects that demands complete attention. It's also not something you're terribly likely to debate with friends after you watch it. Nonetheless, it's a great deal more subtle and ambiguous than most Bruckheimer films.
At the start of Tide, we learn that extremist factions in Russia may take control and threaten the US. The submarine Crimson Tide gets put into duty and may need to use its nuclear missiles. Headed by Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman), Lt. Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington) comes on board for his first mission there as second in command.
The Tide receives a message that instructs them to prepare to fire on the Russkies. During an attack, they get another directive, but the battle causes them to lose the final part of the communication. This leads to a war of wills between Ramsey and Hunter, as they attempt to execute their duties in the appropriate manner.
In a typical Bruckheimer flick, both heroes and villains tend to be strongly differentiated. In most of them, no one in the audience needs to expend a lot of gray matter discerning between the good guys and the bad guys, as they tend to be about as black and white as it can get. We have heroes for whom we can root without reservation and villains who we can despise without consideration.
Crimson Tide provides the audience with a hero but no clear cut villain. Hackman's Ramsey largely fills that bill, but not to a decisive degree; although he functions as the bad guy in the piece, that's mainly because he opposes our hero (Washington's Hunter), not because he's inherently evil or because he tries to perform any wantonly dastardly deed.
Whereas the majority of Bruckheimer films are straight up action pics that feature extensive battle scenes between the various participants, Crimson Tide is much more of a psychological drama. While a few scenes feature attacks from rebel Russian subs, the tension and excitement comes mainly from the philosophical conflict between the main characters. The film lacks the stylized violence and heavy-handed melodrama of works such as Armageddon and Con Air. While it manipulates the viewer to a certain degree, it doesn't come close to equally the "feel this way now" heights of other Bruckheimer epics.
It also requires the audience to consider which path they think is most appropriate. While Ramsey comes off as the less responsible and more irrational of the two leads, he nonetheless receives sympathy and understanding from the viewer because he's a man who tries to execute his command to the best of his ability. I feel that the film depicts Ramsey as a bit too malevolent and eager to attack, but he still appears less simplistic and barbarous than he could have. At all times, one can comprehend and empathize with his point of view, even though we may feel that Hunter pursues the more appropriate path.
I don't mean to bash Bruckheimer's other films because they lack the subtlety and intellectual impact of Crimson Tide; again, they do what they set out to do, and they can be satisfying and entertaining in that regard. Nonetheless, I definitely feel that Crimson Tide is a step up from the producer's usual
fare. Unlike most of his films, little about it seemed gratuitous, unlike bits such as the car chase in The Rock. I thought that scene appeared out of place and useless in the scheme of things and felt it existed only because the filmmakers wanted a little action in the midst of a number of expository segments.
While the sub attack scenes in Crimson Tide strike me in somewhat the same vein, I believe they're much more defensible if simply because a) they make sense within the context of the story; and b) they advance the plot. Since the story mainly concerns the conflict of interpreted duty between the main characters, the sub attack provides a reason for that struggle. After all, the leads oppose each other because of differing responses to an incomplete message; without the assault from the Russians, the directions would have been easily interpreted and the drama would not have existed.
Overall, Crimson Tide works well because it doesn't try to overstep it boundaries. Almost the entire film takes place on the submarine, which makes for an effective technique ala The Abyss. The story relies on the audience feeling as cut off from the rest of the world as the characters. This method also gives us that claustrophobic feeling that seems so necessary in underwater films.
Crimson Tide's cast actually is less star-studded than many Bruckheimer vehicles; really, Hackman and Washington were the only "name" actors in this picture when it hit screens in 1995. That's not a problem, though, and it may act to the film's benefit. Both leads are typically excellent; Washington makes for one of the most effective and understated "action heroes" around, since he virtually never relies on the kind of hamminess we usually see in those roles. The supporting cast all fill their parts well; no one lets down the production.
Ironically, the only casting problem that occurs was in no way the fault of the producers. As Radchenko, the Russian nationalist whose rebel forces have precipitated this conflict, we briefly see Daniel Von Bargen.
Who? Seinfeld fans will clearly recognize Von Bargen as Kruger, George's goofball boss during the final season of the show. Seeing him as this violent radical definitely threw me off, but that's going to happen with little known character actors; all I thought of when I saw Hammond's butler during the early part of The Lost World was, "Hey! It's Mr. Pitt!"
Also as an aside, Crimson Tide contained at least one glaring factual error. The film takes place in October of year that's undisclosed, but logically seems to have been 1994 or 1995. However, at one point, Hunter mentions that the Cuban Missile Crisis happened 32 and a half years prior to the events depicted in the film. I can buy the 32, but not the half, since those events took place in October 1962.
I'd guess that the film originally was set to take place at about the same time as its release date in spring, 1995, which would correctly date the previous crisis; the filmmakers may have later decided to alter the month written in the overlays but left the now-inaccurate statement alone. Okay, it's no big deal, but I gotta use my history degree for something!