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It's full speed ahead for 'Crimson Tide' as thriller

"Crimson Tide" and "The Hunt for Red October": Separated at birth?

There are similarities, to be sure. Let's call them inspirations -- like the mood lighting on the submarines and the swelling choral music in both movies. But, hey, if a formula works, let's confirm the missile launch and go go go!

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"Crimson Tide" has a different plot, and after that deja vu feeling leaves you it's gripping in a more intense way. While "The Hunt for Red October" felt like a breathless video game, "Crimson Tide" has a more claustrophobic and desperate sense of what's at stake: nuclear war. Even a routine missile drill aboard the sub has an eerie sense of foreboding.

Like its predecessor, "Tide" is also very entertaining. Director Tony Scott has earned his action epaulets with "Top Gun" (and dimmer efforts, such as "The Last Boy Scout"), and he puts his credentials to good use here.

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Denzel Washington gives a magnetic, man-of-steel performance as Lt. Cmdr. Ron Hunter, who is called into action as the executive officer aboard a sub captained by naval combat veteran Frank Ramsey (the riveting Gene Hackman). It seems that some pesky Russian with outrageous nationalist views has started a civil war in the former Soviet Union and seized a nuclear missile base. It's time for the defenders of democracy to dive deep and await their orders.

When those orders come, they tell the crew to do the unthinkable: launch the nukes. (This twist is no shock if you've seen the commercials.) Then, in the chaos of underwater combat, another order is cut off in mid-message. Did it say to call off the attack?

Mr. Hackman and Mr. Washington, who have been sparring with irony and cool civility, are suddenly and seriously at odds. Captain Ramsey, as doggedly single-minded as the Jack Russell terrier he takes everywhere, wants to follow the rules: launch per the last confirmed order. The more thoughtful Hunter wants confirmation before starting a nuclear holocaust. Imagine that.

The nuclear-powered struggle of wills and loyalties between Mr. Washington and Mr. Hackman, and subsequently the crew, keeps the movie cranked up to top tension. Even when you're pretty sure the filmmakers aren't going to pull a "Dr. Strangelove" on you at the end, the cool gadgets and the fast action are gripping. The underwater battles are especially exciting. Who will live? Who will die? Who will preserve the honor of the Navy?

"Tide" resembles "October" in the latter respect: It buys into the idea that the Military Is Cool. Even when Mr. Hackman's character is treading mighty close to the deep end (and the deep end is pretty deep in the middle of the ocean), he's still doing it for dog and country. He demands a kind of grudging respect.

OK, it's sort of predictable. And that's not the only flaw: Things that are done for effect just make no sense. The story is framed by a CNN correspondent talking about Russia from a ship in the Mediterranean. Why isn't he in Moscow? And there's a briefing near the beginning of the film that takes place in a sexy room that's more dimly lighted than your average garage. Nobody can see the map in there, but it would make a great jazz club.

"Crimson Tide" still crackles with suspense, once the sub gets under way. "Red October" fans have good reason to dive in.

"Crimson Tide"

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Directed by Tony Scott

Starring Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Rated R (language, violence)

***



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