Bang for your buck

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

Crimson Tide is a psychological thriller masquerading as an action adventure--everything occurs within the confines of the submarine, and soon, director Tony Scott's high-speed tracking shots, floods of red and blue light, and stilleto-edit cuts convince us we've entered into an Olympic struggle of the conscience whose consequences will be felt far outside the immediate playing field. Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman participate in a tango of adversarial philosophies that dazzles us with its effortless conviction. Only twice do the filmmakers drop the ball, with strange and cheap last-minute twists in Hackman's character that attempt to turn him into the villain he never should've been. Other than those missteps, Crimson Tide is an unexpected repudiation of their Air Force recruitment hit Top Gun, in which war is portrayed as its own reward and the decision to kill another pilot was about as difficult as shifting the joystick and punching the big red button on a video arcade game.

Crimson Tide is also an unintentional homage to another classic by the director's brother, filmmaker Ridley. In the 1979 Alien, the hapless crewmembers of a claustrophobic space ship are forced to live (and die) with a violent force they never before encountered. In Crimson Tide, fictional members of the American military are trapped together on an underwater ship, waiting for the inevitable appearance of a savage and merciless beast--their own conscience in the tangle of war maneuvers.

Action-adventure freaks who feel they were hoodwinked into paying seven bucks to watch Crimson Tide's stagebound, deeply moral meditation on the dilemma between duty and humanity will find their drug of choice in Die Hard With a Vengeance.

Where the first two Die Hard films milked audience anxiety by forcing us to identify with a few innocent people trapped in a relatively small space--a high-rise building and an airport, respectively--With a Vengeance raises the stakes by turning an American city into the villain's playground. Developing characters is unimportant here, because the evil is impersonal, capricious, random. Since it can strike any place, any time, and anybody, the filmmakers seem to have reasoned, they needn't include any details about the individuals caught up in it. Unfortunately, the same sloppiness is extended to the development of the good guys, the bad guys, the often ridiculous plot, and even the climax (or what amounts to one of the biggest anti-climaxes ever to drag a big-budget action thriller down like an anchor).

We're left to appreciate a handful of effective suspense sequences and wonder why, exactly, the producers couldn't afford to hire a decent scriptwriter while they were handing out fat checks to all those demolition experts.

Die Hard With a Vengeance offers three kinds of bang: big, bigger, and biggest. Less than two minutes after the title is stamped across the screen, a department store in downtown New York City gets blown to bits.

Simon, the "mad genius" (Jeremy Irons), who is for a long time just a mysterious telephone voice with a German accent and a flair for handing out bits of evidence as rhymed riddles, makes one of his demands quite early--he wants John McClane (Bruce Willis), a detective on official suspension and an alcohol bender a year after his wife left him, to follow a series of clues about his next planned bombing through New York City. Police officials pull the hung-over McClane back into service to prevent more deaths.

Our other unlikely hero is Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson), a Harlem pawn shop owner who gets involved completely by accident in the first stunt McClane is compelled to perform under Simon's request and his commander's orders. Soon, McClane and Zeus are racing all over the city, sometimes on foot, sometimes in stolen cars or runaway subway trains, but always to meet Simon's next telephone instruction.

Every movie fan possesses his or her own gauge for suspension of disbelief--or, to put it plainly, the number of implausibilities you'll accept to be entertained--but for me, Die Hard With a Vengeance pegged the meter after the first couple of bone-headed, far-fetched connections between events. Half the time Willis and Jackson solve Simon's riddles through ridiculously contrived free association. If that isn't enough, the filmmakers insist you swallow that a large army of foreign dissidents could steal all the gold bricks in New York's Federal Reserve and spirit them out on tow trucks.

As Simon, Jeremy Irons is utterly wasted in a brief, sketchy role that should've called on his considerable powers of arch Euro-nastiness. Irons was scarier as the voice of the fratricidal Scar in Disney's Lion King, than as this erudite terrorist who holds thousands of innocent lives in his hands.

It doesn't help that the filmmakers declaw Simon early in the movie by painting him as an object of ridicule rather than fear. He has a foreign accent, he's educated, he stutters when he becomes anxious, and he's not nearly as butch as our smart-ass heroes. Thus, Willis and Jackson are given a series of audience-pleasing one-liners to taunt Irons about his masculinity--in the space of less than 10 minutes, he's referred to as "a cross-dresser," a "well-laid ass," and a psycho who wants to "dress up and fuck" Willis.

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