Dive! Comedy is sub-excellent 'Frasier' star Kelsey Grammer makes a film-saving splash as a Navy commander with heart of gold and a common crew.

March 01, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Without Kelsey Grammer aboard, "Down Periscope" would sink like a pig boat with the plug pulled.

But in his first big screen starring role, the balding TV guy holds the screen with impressive aplomb and gives even this vagrant script an emotional anchor that almost makes it work.

Grammer plays Cmdr. Tom Dodge, a brilliant but erratic career Naval officer who is on the brink of elimination from the elite command pool in the nuclear sub fleet. One old salt -- Adm. Rip Torn -- still believes in him, so he's given a command at last, though it's the wackiest boat in the Navy: a World War II rustbucket that has no nuclear plant aboard but only grunting diesels and electric motors. His job is to impersonate a renegade Soviet boat in war games against the ultra-sophisticated nuclear hunter-killer subs that lurk off Charleston and Norfolk.

Of course his pompous enemies -- Bruce Dern, still psycho after all these years -- conspire to destroy him. Dern is a rabid by-the-book admiral who wants to wash Grammer out of the service and makes his humiliation priority one. Even Grammer's executive officer is problematic: Rob Scheider, so tightly wound he looks like he's just eaten the book of Naval regulations without sugar.

To make the contest even more lopsided, Grammer is given a crew that could have been culled from any service comedy ever made, the usual run of oddballs, mutants, tattoo freaks, stogie-sucking cooks, and Hawaiian-shirt wearing engine mates (the great Harry Dean Stanton, if you look fast). And, of course a woman: Lauren Holly, aboard for one joke, which gets her into a shrunken uniform that humiliatingly emphasizes the parts of her that are unlike the parts of her crewmates.

Familiar? As old TV sitcoms. Surprising? As old TV sitcoms. Where's Ernest Borgnine when you need him?

But the movie is watchable primarily on the strength of some occasionally effective humor, some occasionally effective sub warfare sequences but primarily Grammer's easy grace. It's a very specific impersonation of authority: No martinet, Grammer's Dodge is totally at home with himself, and totally unthreatened by his circumstances. He's actually as close to an ideal commanding officer as one could imagine: He helps each crew member find his strength, he never brutalizes or intimidates but leads through purity of action and commitment and utter sangfroid in mock-battle.

I don't want to see the movie again, but it would be an honor to serve under such a guy.

'Down Periscope'

Starring Kelsey Grammer and Lauren Holly

Directed by David Ward

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated PG

Sun score ** 1/2

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