Deft Actors Keep 'Crimson Tide' Afloat

Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington vie for the helm when remnants of the cold war resurface

LIKE many politicians, Hollywood has been discombobulated by the end of the cold war, which provided a set of social and political certainties that allowed filmmakers to bypass original thought where international intrigue was concerned. Not surprisingly, two of moviedom's most successful producers -- the unstoppable Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, purveyors of ''Top Gun'' and ''Beverly Hills Cop,'' among other hits -- have figured out a way to fill this gap.

''Crimson Tide,'' their latest action-adventure epic, begins with a TV reporter telling us that a nasty Russian insurgent has seized a bunch of nuclear weapons aimed at international targets, and is threatening to kick off Armageddon if anyone interferes with his revolution.

This way the picture can scare us with the menace of Russian missiles, just as movies did in the bad old days when Mutual Assured Destruction was policy in East and West alike. But at the same time, it can hold out the possibility that new-style Russians, more benign than their communist forebears, will defuse the revolutionary's scheme and bring us all to a happy ending.

Fiendishly clever, those California capitalists, managing to have their cold war and deny it, too. In the end, though, all this stuff about missiles and warheads is just a ''McGuffin,'' as Alfred Hitchcock used to call such things -- a gimmick that sets the story in motion, after which nobody gives a hoot about it, including the audience.

What's really on everyone's mind in ''Crimson Tide'' is the fascinating tension between its two main characters, submarine commanders who provide a few additional McGuffins of their own: frictions between white and black, age and youth, authority and flexibility.

These may not sound like McGuffins, but like the missile-menace that launches the movie's plot, they're important and complicated matters that the filmmakers exploit in the most superficial way, building oodles of suspense while giving hardly a thought to what should be their main interest -- how private psychology shapes public action in the world of high-tech military might.

Such is the power of high-tech military entertainment, however, that this utter lack of depth doesn't prevent ''Crimson Tide'' from being great fun on its own shallow terms.

The most obvious key to its success is a pair of expert performances that give it a firm center of gravity even when the plot occasionally runs out of steam.

Gene Hackman plays the older of the two protagonists, Ramsey, a crusty submarine skipper who's honed his skills and hardened his sensibilities through decades of hands-on work. Denzel Washington plays his younger counterpart, Hunter, a new executive officer who's slim on experience but has all the book-learning that places like Annapolis and Harvard could give him.

More character-driven than the average war-related movie, ''Crimson Tide'' lets these guys work up their simmering antagonisms one step at a time, a process that takes up the first half of the movie. There's even a bit of subtlety involved, especially in the area of race.

Color is hardly mentioned -- just a couple of jokey references near the end -- but it's clearly a factor in the story's development, and the whole notion of Washington's character as a ''new breed'' of top officer carries unstated racial connotations.

Subtlety gets scuttled when hostilities break into the open, throwing Ramsey and Hunter into unrestrained conflict and turning their sub, the Alabama, into two camps of sharply divided loyalists even as it hovers dangerously near its Russian adversary.

The crew scurries around with rifles and pistols at one point, threatening to make the picture a ''Shootout at the OK Submarine'' with a watery grave for the losers.

This mixture of war-movie characters and western-style action takes on a tinge of surrealism from the look of the Alabama itself, full of weird lights and blinking gizmos that recall the Starship Enterprise -- mentioned in the dialogue, in case we miss the similarities -- more than the grimly metallic subs of more old-fashioned pictures. The hokeyness is charming at moments; seen from outside, the Alabama looks like a toy you'd get in a cereal box and play with in the bathtub.

Written by Michael Schiffer and Richard P. Henrick, the screenplay of ''Crimson Tide'' rings truer than its title, which suggests a lipstick shade rather than an adventure yarn. Washington's dialogue allows him to ingratiate himself without clamoring for our affection, and Hackman gets at least one potentially classic line to say: ''We're here to preserve democracy,'' he reminds his overly independent subordinate, ''not to practice it.''

The movie doesn't practice democracy, either, focusing almost entirely on officers at the expense of crewmen who might have been just as interesting to know.

As for females, women seeking role models will have to make do with a glimpse of Hunter's wife before the Alabama hits the open sea.

Most noteworthy in the supporting cast is George Dzundza, always dependable when a touch of anguished uncertainty is called for. The picture was directed by Tony Scott, auteur of such motley projects as ''Days of Thunder'' and the recent ''True Romance,'' not to mention ''Top Gun,'' one of several Simpson-Bruckheimer collaborations.

''Crimson Tide'' is his most respectable offering to date. Here's hoping it starts a trend in his career.

''Crimson Tide'' has an R rating; it contains vulgar language and violence.

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