Equipped with liberal helpings of square-jawed top quality Hollywood thespianism, and that expensive, highly commercial Tony Scott gloss-finish, this submarine-set mutiny thriller is about as good as it gets. A high profile movie that, for once, dispenses with the pile-driver effects of your everyday blockbuster, to trade in high voltage characters, visceral claustrophobia and a tension you can chew on. A nail-nibbling plot resting on what could happen rather than what does.
On a big, big sub, hot with nuclear potency, trouble brews. Up on the surface, the scriptwriters have contrived a suitable, if rather forced, global crisis with fascist Russian rebels getting into that broom cupboard filled with nuclear missiles and threatening the new world order. Down below, all hell breaks loose and the alert shifts to DEFCON 3. Then, provided by a magnificent duo of performances, an already simmering relationship between old school, plain-talking Captain Ramsey (Hackman) and his new executive officer - the bright Hunter (Washington) - goes ballistic when orders come through to blast the Ruskies before they blast us, closely followed by a second, incomplete counter order.
What it boils down to is Washington's thinker says hold off, wait and confirm, while the scalp scratching, orders-are-God Hackman is for pressing the big button. The script (written by a host of scribes including an uncredited Quentin Tarantino) delivers a series of screen-shaking face-offs before Washington takes matters into his own hands and usurps his cantankerous boss.Events are heightened to fever pitch by Scott's pulsating tick-tock rhythm as they inch toward the brink of nuclear war while, between the lines, the burdens of responsibility and duty are duly examined - the film taking an intelligently neutral stance over the two main protagonists' contrasting ethics.
Tarantino's script doctoring works to mixed effect; he grooms the final confrontation scene to perfection, but the pop-culture references (Star Trek, The Silver Surfer) stick out like bilge water in a Perrier factory. The film is also masculine to the hilt, a feast for hardware junkies and action freaks alike, with female roles kept to the barest of minimums. But as Washington and Hackman pout and fume like masters, awash in Scott's trademark super-slick direction and Hans Zimmer's stirring score, the effect is mesmerising.