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Down Periscope is far from a feminist film though you’ll have to wait a long time to see so many men doing the cleaning.
I’ve not witnessed such a good scrubbing from a team of guys since the clingfilm-and-Windolene clear-up job in John Wick when they turned up to dispose of the blood-covered assassins he’d just singlehandedly disposed of in his lovely white house.
Down Periscope’s crew transform their newly-recommissioned ancient submarine, turning it from damp and cobwebby rust-bucket to sparkling, repainted and (just about) seaworthy vessel.
It’s impressive, though other than that this is a very male film with one woman character who is the butt of several unpleasant jokes, with no understanding of the menace there can be when so many men, in a confined space, are mocking and whistling.
To be fair this is a film made in 1996 and I’m reviewing it now after Hunter Killer star Gerard Butler declared his wish to revitalise the submarine genre. (He may have meant to reboot with something as good as Das Boot but sorry Gerry, this review is a warning to be careful what you wish for.)
Tom Dodge (Kelsey Grammer), who is on the command programme for the US Navy, is being assessed for his suitability to be given his own boat as commander. This is his third and final shot (it’s not at all clear how someone so poorly thought of ever made it onto the programme in the first place).
If Dodge is rejected this time he’s off the programme – and the only reason people don’t want that is that it will reflect badly on the US Navy.
He has some black marks against him, literally in the case of a tattoo on his penis saying All Aboard which he got after a drunken night out – drowning his sorrows after accidentally bumping a Russian submarine he was meant to be tracking.
Dodge is certainly confident; after finally making the grade, he instantly requests that if he succeeds at the war game he’s been ordered to complete in his “new” old sub, he can swap the rustbucket USS Stingray and be moved to a more modern boat.
The Stingray is a mess – an old diesel submarine left over from WW2, and a crew deliberately picked to screw up the new commander’s chances of success.
They’re a motley bunch. A few stand out: dive officer Emily (Lauren Holly); second in command Marty Pascal (Rob Schneider), a tightly wound weasel of a man; admiral’s son Brad Stepanak (Bradford Tatum), who just wants to behave so badly he’s discharged; and “Sonar” Lovacelli (Harland Williams), who’s spent so much time listening in under the sea he can now speak Whale.
Down Periscope isn’t awful. There are some fun moments and I found Kelsey Grammer as supposedly hapless new Commander Dodge to be rather good, from the off. (Dodge also uses “whom” correctly which, if I was in a better mood, would have given him an extra half star.) If anything Dodge as a character is too capable, with no real journey to go on apart from under the sea and into the harbour.
As a comedy it needs either more inspired slapstick and acceptability-stretching of the kind Airplane did so well, or more actual jokes. A comedy movie about submarines could be a silly riot, as there are so many cliches to plunder from its more serious versions: from v-e-r-y slow underwater games of cat and mouse to “we’re not so different, you and I” conversations between American and Russian captains (see Hunter Killer for a classic of this trope).
This movie is okay as a diversion for an evening at home, and it’s only 90 minutes before you get to resurface, but it could be so much more.
It does boast an impressive cast. Rip Torn and Bruce Dern turn up as two warring admirals and they’re fun to watch. Admiral Yancy Graham (Dern) loathes Dodge and has turned a work issue into a deeply personal one – he’s desperate for Dodge to fail at the task he’s been set, though again Yancy could be a whole lot crazier. (I have a soft spot for Dern whose Wikipedia bio introduces him as “an American actor, often playing supporting villainous characters of unstable nature”.)
We also get William H Macy as Dodge’s captain before he gets his own boat, whose own sub the USS Orlando is later set up against Dodge in the war game they’ve been set. And the late great Harry Dean Stanton is having fun in the Stingray engineering room.
Lauren Holly does her best as the only woman on the sub, though her character is a stereotype. Emily has a crisis of confidence and needs to be coaxed into showing her true potential, which should be Dodge’s character arc, not the only woman in a mostly male environment. There’s also the obligatory squashed boobs shot as she’s forced to squeeze into a tiny uniform with no bra as the men have stole her clothes. How I laughed! Back in 1950 anyway.
The story is played surprisingly straight, with occasional flashes of gross-out humour (yes there’s a fart gag, though in this case it’s not silent but almost deadly), pratfalls, squirting water leaks through riveted seams, and impotent rage. And as Dodge and his crew gradually bond in the face of Yancy’s duplicity and their own achievements it is reasonably involving. Dodge shows himself to be a man who thinks out of the box.
The submarine itself looks, to my untrained eyes, perfectly realistic, as does the language they use. The underwater shots are okay, though occasionally looking like two toy boats in a bath.
Ultimately Down Periscope is a wasted opportunity, a film that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. If only, like Dodge, it had had the courage of its convictions!
Watch the trailer for Down Periscope: