How can you beat a title as good as 1995’s “Crimson Tide”? The words of the title are short, concise, catchy, and, more important, provocative. Well, one way to outdo the title is to have Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in the movie’s starring roles. Another is to hire Tony Scott (“Top Gun,” “Days of Thunder,” “True Romance,” “Enemy of the People,” “Man on Fire”) to direct it. And yet another is to get Jerry Bruckheimer (“The Rock,” “Con Air,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Pirates of the Caribbean”) to produce it. The actors assure us of credible performances; the director assures us of competent pacing; and the producer assures us of first-class special effects. “Crimson Tide” comes through on all counts, and this newly released Unrated Extended Edition provides about eight more minutes of added footage that certainly don’t do it any harm.
The movie follows in the honored tradition of underseas adventures like “Run Silent, Run Deep” and “Das Boot,” although its action is assuredly more exaggerated. Washington stars as Lt. Commander Ron Hunter, a good, kind, thoughtful family man just assigned as the Executive Officer to the nuclear-missile submarine U.S.S. Alabama, under the command of Captain Frank Ramsey, played by Hackman. The two fellows couldn’t be more different. Hunter is not only a happily married man, he is Annapolis and Harvard educated. Ramsey is old-line Navy, the kind of guy who simply follows orders. Tell him what to do, and he does it. Hunter, on the other hand, will also follow orders, but he likes to know why he’s doing things.
The moviemakers preface the film with a rather long exposition, starting with the following text: “The three most powerful men in the world: The President of the United States… The President of the Russian Republic… and… The Captain of a U.S. nuclear missile submarine.” These filmmakers have a great penchant for ellipses.
Then a newsman tells us that the Russian Republic is in a state of civil war, a corps of Russian army rebels having seized a submarine base and a nuclear missile complex. Allied forces are standing by to see what develops as the rebels threaten nuclear attack on the U.S. and Japan. The world is on the brink of War.
The Alabama’s assignment is to patrol the waters off southeast Asia in anticipation of an imminent Russian rebel attack. The American sub’s job is to initiate a preemptive nuclear strike should they be told that the Russian rebels are preparing to fire their own missiles. Get them before they get us. From this information, we can just about guess what is going to happen in the story.
The tension between the two main characters, Hunter and Ramsey, is commensurate with the rising tensions in the world around them. They are clearly at opposite extremes, Hunter the sensitive, reflective man; Ramsey the hard-nosed, by-the-book man. The movie reduces and then rebuilds that tension any number of times through a series of unlikely but highly exciting events.
First, a fire breaks out in the galley, an action designed to show off Hunter’s quick thinking and bravery as he puts out the fire and Ramsey’s erratic decision-making as he stages a drill during this moment of confusion. The sequence seems at first glance extraneous but provides evidence of the differences between the two men. However, what are the odds of something like a galley fire starting up and the captain simultaneously calling a mock drill actually happening?
As the story progresses, Captain Ramsey begins displaying ever more bizarre, paranoid behavior, perhaps sensing a looming confrontation with his Executive Officer. Ramsey is tough, no doubt, and Hunter is cautious, but Hunter is not afraid to stand up to the old man. When Ramsey puts his foot down, he does so stating “We’re here to preserve democracy, not to practice it.”
The movie’s central conflict comes rather abruptly. The sub receives an Emergency Action Message (an “EAM”) that reads, “Russian nuclear missile launch codes compromised.” This means the Russian rebels could launch their missiles within the hour. The situation becomes desperate; the Navy could compel the submarine to take preemptive action at any time.
Now, here’s the thing: Just as this crisis is coming to a head, another unlikely event occurs: The Alabama passes a submerged submarine, a Russian rebel ship, not far away. Then, at virtually the same time, the Alabama receives a second EAM telling them that the Russian rebels on land are fueling their missiles.
The next maneuver ought to be simple: The Alabama should prepare to launch its preemptive strike unless they receive further orders. But nothing is so simple in an action movie like this one. The Russian rebel submarine attacks them, and as a result the Alabama loses radio contact with the outside world. But not before they receive another, incomplete EAM, which could either be telling them to go ahead and fire their missiles (and start WWIII) or to abort the mission.
Again, what are the odds? In the absence of any further information, the captain orders the firing of the missiles. In the absence of any proof one way or the other that they should fire the missiles, Hunter refuses to go along with the captain’s orders. According to naval regulations, both the Captain and his Executive Officer have to agree before launching nuclear weapons.
Yes, the movie lays it on pretty thick, and this is only the halfway point in the story; we’ve got over an hour to go! From then on, we get a back-and-forth chess match, a mutinous crew, and various deadly encounters before the story closes in exactly the manner we anticipate. Yet the thrills remain authentic, even though we know exactly how the plot is going to turn out.
Amazingly, despite the coincidences and the melodrama, especially in the second half, the stars manage to make it all seem fairly credible. There are other fine actors in the film–Matt Craven, George Dzundza, Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, Danny Nucci, Jason Robards–but you hardly notice them, they are so overshadowed by Washington and Hackman. More important than the release of nuclear missiles and the impending prospect of World War III is the psychological struggle between the movie’s two leads, with the ship’s crew lining up behind one man or the other. Thanks to Washington and Hackman, the film holds us on the edge of our seat most of the way, aided and abetted by a heroic musical score by Hans Zimmer. You really can’t ask much more of an action adventure.
True to its beginnings, the movie ends with a text epilogue: “As of January 1996, primary authority and ability to fire nuclear missiles will no longer rest with the U.S. submarine commander… Principal control will reside with the President of the United States.” It’s reassuring to see the filmmakers are never without an ellipsis.
Although I hadn’t seen “Crimson Tide” on DVD for years, this new edition looked better to me than I remember the old one looking. It’s probably because Buena Vista remastered the movie to disc this time in a high-bit-rate anamorphic transfer. The film’s appearance is excellent in almost every way, the image dimensions measuring a very wide 2.18:1 across my television, very close to its theatrical-exhibition size of 2.35:1. The colors are realistically rendered, never too dark, never too light, very natural; and detail, while not in the high-definition class, is nevertheless quite good. The various hues are set off by deep black levels, yet the picture never gets too murky, even in the dim confines of the submarine.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is just as good as one would expect it to be from a Bruckheimer action movie made in the DD 5.1 era. The sound is extremely dynamic, with a high impact and a powerfully deep bass. Just as important, the audio engineers effectively capture the surround activity in the sounds of music, rain, thunder, torpedoes, and all the creaks and groans of a submerged submarine. The captain’s voice on the ship’s intercom sounds particularly realistic.
In addition to the seven added minutes and a better video image than Buena Vista’s earlier DVD release of the movie, this new edition contains several bonus items. To begin, there are three deleted scenes running between thirty seconds and a minute and a half. Then, there is a ten-minute “All Access” featurette, “On the Set of Crimson Tide.” And there is a nineteen-minute featurette, “The Making of Crimson Tide.” Both of these featurettes are pretty much just promotional segments hyping the film, but they contain a few items of interest.
The extras conclude with a mere ten scene selections; Sneak Peeks at five other Buena Vista titles; English as the only spoken language choice; and English captions for the hearing impaired. However, BV do provide a chapter insert and a handsomely embossed slipcover for the keep case.
“Crimson Tide” is as exaggerated as any action adventure around, yet it looks so good, it moves so fast, and its stars are so believable, I doubt that anyone will mind. Once underway, it’s a genuine nail-biter. The ratings board originally gave the movie an R rating for strong language, which if the movie were resubmitted I’m sure would not change with the added footage. But additional footage or no, I’d say the improved picture quality is probably the new edition’s greatest claim to fame.