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.

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.

Which brings us to the most expendable character in Die Hard With a Vengeance--the one played by Bruce Willis. While I've often enjoyed Willis' character turns, he's got to be one of the most annoying, least intuitive action heroes ever to strut across a blast site. Willis appears to have perfected his tough-guy acting technique for With a Vengeance by wearing an athletic supporter a few sizes too small--he smirks, he grimaces, he squints, but never does he relay to us the gravity of the situations he must confront.

When all is said and done, Die Hard With a Vengeance--by offering nonstop cataclysm and a script that blatantly targets a junior high school mentality--may best the superior Crimson Tide in the summer box office race.

Crimson Tide. Hollywood Pictures. Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, George Dzundza. Written by Robert Schiffer, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Towne. Directed by Tony Scott. Now showing.

Die Hard With a Vengeance. 20th Century Fox. Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Irons. Written by Jonathan Hensleigh. Directed by John McTiernan. Opens May 19.

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