Bang for your buck

Crimson Tide and Die Hard With a Vengeance provide summer's action fix

At the American box office, hot weather means action heroes wisecracking their way through one elaborately staged disaster after another--all that we hold dear depending on their charisma and endurance.

But this is a unique summer: the country is still reeling from allegations that the Oklahoma City federal building was blown up with almost cinematic flair by self-styled patriots from the heartland who apparently are willing to kill and die for their ideals of freedom and democracy.

Naturally, because the Hollywood summer box office battle relies every year on anticipating the country's current preoccupations and then cashing in on them, the big players are more nervous than usual about the "more-bang-for-their-buck" credo that's paid off so handsomely in the past. With the reality check of Oklahoma City still fresh, will moviegoers be repulsed by Hollywood's summer offerings of indiscriminate bloodletting? Or will filmgoers crave bloody cinematic spectacles in which the bad guys are easily discernible and their punishment delivered with a swift, brutal theatricality that the American justice system appears woefully unable to provide?

The test will come when two of the most highly anticipated films of summer 1995 weigh in with very different perspectives about violence-as-entertainment and the relationship between the individual conscience and aggression. Both films have the star-power, the major studio support, and a box office track record by filmmakers to reach past the golden $100 million mark and help this year match 1994's record-breaking receipts. But they reach their respective goals in such dramatically diverse ways, thoughtful ticket-buyers can only speculate what the success of either film would tell us about American audiences.

If you'd expect any movie to cheaply exploit a momentary popular obsession, the Don Simpson-Jerry Bruckheimer-produced, Tony Scott-directed Crimson Tide would be it. Simpson and Bruckheimer are the legendary production team that brought us Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop II, and, most important of all, Top Gun. They are moneymaking partners who're unusually blunt about their ambitions--"I don't make art," was a legendary observation from one of them, "I buy it"--and responsible for over a billion dollars in domestic and foreign gross over the last dozen years.

Director Tony Scott (True Romance, The Hunger) can proudly list a handful of mega-earners under the stewardship of Simpson-Bruckheimer, but unlike his critically acclaimed brother Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise), he has never before quite found the appropriate technique for the appropriate script. Tony Scott is forever tilting his cameras at weird angles, asking his cinematographers to pour on more expressionistic lights, and hauling that infamous mist-machine to every shoot. His early days as an award-winning TV commercial director and music videomaker have permanently warped his sense of narrative as a filmmaker, to the extent that he's been conditioned to conceal a lack of substance with an extravagant emphasis on the bells and whistles of modern film technology.

You could easily retitle Crimson Tide as Tony Meets A Terrific Script, with the final victor being audiences who see this taut, masterfully paced, surprisingly mature thriller. While the screen credit lists Michael Schiffer as the sole author, the work of uncredited script doctors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Towne also contributes to this unexpectedly even-handed look at emergency wartime decision-making and the way it can grind the soul out of the individual who's in command.

The crew of the U.S.S. Alabama, a nuclear submarine dispatched to monitor the activities of Zhironovsky-esque Russian nationalists who've seized control of a former Soviet missile base, are terrified at what they're facing, but are confident in the unwavering leadership of Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman), a seasoned military strategist who lavishes affections on a temperamental terrier and relishes the unvarnished awe his presence inspires among the men.

The problem is his intellectual executive officer Hunter (Denzel Washington) can't take orders from above without considering lives outside the military--especially where throwing around nuclear missiles is concerned. Hunter and Ramsey soon find themselves in a conflict that pits crewmember against crewmember: do we fire nuclear missiles against a confirmed Russian target, or do we wait until the latest garbled transmission from the U.S. government confirms whether in fact they are our enemies?

Most of what happens during Crimson Tide occurs in real time--that is, the audience, like the actors, must wait through an hour-long countdown that will determine whether the Russian nationalists will carry through with their threat to strike against the U.S. In addition, we watch helplessly as the command of the U.S. Alabama shifts back and forth between Washington, who's desperate to halt the preemptive attack until communications equipment can be repaired and federal officials can be contacted about their scrambled message, and Hackman, who insists "we're here to preserve democracy, not practice it," and angrily rebuts any attempts to question the authority of his call to fire.

The film becomes a sweaty, rock-jawed examination of the burden of military command as the responsibility of launching nuclear missiles "to save our country" leapfrogs among characters. As each man confronts the decision, he finds that kind of power to be either overwhelming or perfectly in sync with the American military policy that says don't question the orders of your commanding officer--whether or not you trust his or her judgment.

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