The wacky-crew in the Navy story has been done and done well (just think of TV’s “McHale’s Navy” or the Cary Grant-Tony Curtis classic “Operation Petticoat” – click here for my review) but it’s always nice to see a modern film that accomplishes the same. Kelsey Grammer pulls off a great comedic turn in “Down Periscope” and his crew pretty much is stereotyped but most manage to rise above that limitation. “Down Periscope” didn’t get any nominations from anywhere (much less win anything), but it is a winner of a film. You can sit back, relax and enjoy an hour-and-a-half of decent to solid comedy. Not all films earn this distinction.
(1996; 92 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by David S. Ward and starring Kelsey Grammer, Lauren Holley and Rob Schneider)
SINKING SHIPS BUT NOT HIS CAREER
(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion, reorganization of it and the updating of links on March 20, 2016.)
Kelsey Grammer obviously knows TV comedy and is most comfortable in that frame, but he uses “Down Periscope” on the big screen to show that he can hold his own in cinema. OK, calling “Down Periscope” cinema isn’t the best way to put it, but the film is funny and entertaining with a good cast and that’s never bad. After all, not every production has to be Olivier at the National Theatre.
In “Down Periscope,” Grammer is U.S. Navy officer “Tom Dodge” looking for his own nuclear submarine command, but he isn’t popular with some of the brass because of past indiscretions and flippant attitude toward pompous commanders. Grammer, who is best known for TV’s “Cheers” and “Frasier,” does an excellent job as he swings between affable to funny to somewhat serious to competent and creative. The right leading actor was chosen here.
The film is about how Grammer is given command of a relic – a diesel submarine in today’s nuclear era. He’s supposed to outfox the rest of the fleet as a way to test naval defenses against outdated technology. The story is just a frame so you can meet and enjoy the antics of the crew, but it does have its moments and comes to a climax with Grammer (this really isn’t a spoiler) coming out on top with his crew of misfits. The casting director, Ferne Cassel, did a great job assembling the right actors for the proper roles with the exception of the exceptionally lame Patton Oswalt (see below).
The funny thing (no pun intended) is that none of the crew’s hijinks are ashore. Once the crew boards the submarine for duty under Grammer, they are there for the rest of the film. Many of the movies about Navy crews, such as “Operation Petticoat,” have a shore-borne element that’s usually key to the film.
As to potential weaknesses in “Down Periscope” that didn’t materialize, just look at the first scene:
To establish his anti-establishment attitude, Grammer is on a modern nuclear attack submarine where he hits a golf ball to a green (while first calling ranges as if he’s about to fire on another ship) from the sub’s deck as they pass a coastal golf course. The scene reflects the whole film: What could be pedestrian and boring just works and works well. Grammer as a golfer here is funny, instead of coming off like “Hey look at me, I’m hitting golf balls off a sub! Ha. Ha.”
Here’s a look at some of the principal cast and their work:
- As noted, Grammer is smooth, funny and absolutely convincing as an unconventional commander. He never shows any real stress and remains in control at all times (although a little frustration can peek through). I liked him just as much in another military role as a conniving general in the HBO film “The Pentagon Wars” (click here for my review).
- On Grammer’s side is film veteran and Oscar nominee (not for this one) Rip Torn as “Admiral Winslow.” He, too, is solid in conveying a military bearing while not being too gung-ho about it (there’s always a bit of whimsy in his bearing). Torn isn’t challenged as an actor with this role, certainly not as much as he was in the wonderful “Cincinnati Kid” with Steve McQueen. He got his nomination for “Cross Creek.” Torn has been nominated for eight Primetime Emmys and has earned one – all the nominations and the win were for “The Larry Sanders Show” on HBO.
- Opposing them is two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Bruce Dern in another wonderfully twisted role as “Admiral Graham,” a starched-stiff senior officer who hates Grammer mostly for a tattoo on Grammer’s very personal parts. Dern sometimes puts too much urgency into his character, but it isn’t his fault – the role isn’t exactly an award-winner. I liked Dern much better in “Black Sunday” (click here for my review) and, in a prolific career of 148 acting credits over six decades including 2016, was in films as diverse as the anti-war “Coming Home” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”
- Among the supporting cast, Rob Schneider gives his usual energetic turn as “Executive Officer Marty Pascal.” He’s good at being volatile and eternally stressed out and keyed-up. Schneider’s Chihuahua-like countenance is familiar and he’s been in a variety of comedies from “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” to the two “Deuce Bigelow” flicks. I also liked him as a football announcer in “Necessary Roughness” (click here for my review) and in a quick early spot for the stoner flick “Grandma’s Boy” (click here for my review). He’s most recognized for his several seasons of work on TV’s “Saturday Night Live.”
- Lauren Holly is “Lt. Emily Lake,” the first female for duty on a sub (who, coincidentally, is so appropriately attractive that Grammer believes she’s a stripper at first). Holly isn’t challenged much here, but she doesn’t fumble, either, and that’s a winning stroke in this round. Holly has also been in “Dumb & Dumber” and wasn’t all that bad in the excruciatingly bad “Adventures of Ford Fairlane” (click here for my review), which was only her third film.
- One supporting actor I’d like to have seen more of is Harry Dean Stanton as “Howard,” the grizzled engine room specialist. Stanton is usually terrific and while his character has very limited screen time here, he does a good job. I liked him better in “Kelly’s Heroes” with Clint Eastwood (click here for my review) and he’s been in the original “Red Dawn” (click here for my review), the Stephen King horror flick “Christine” (click here for my review) and “Escape from New York” (click here for my review).
- The best actor and the actors’ actor in this one is William H. Macy as “Capt. Carl Knox.” He’s Grammer’s first commander on the Los Angeles class attack submarine “Orlando” and the film could have used a lot more of him. He’s simply terrific in every role and isn’t stretched at all here. He’s been in critical hits such as “Fargo,” “Panic” (click here for my review), “Thank You for Smoking” (click here for my review) and the especially dark and twisted “The Cooler.” He’s simply the best actor here and could give the rest of the cast lessons.
- The best among the younger actors is Bradford Tatum as “Stepanak,” who lands here as the “dedicated pain in the ass” character in his fifth film after more than a dozen TV credits. Again, Tatum elevates the stereotype with his feigned insouciance about authority and does a really nice job with the character. It’s too bad, but he hasn’t been in any films you can recall and has been on a bunch of TV shows including “Glee” and a couple of branches of the “CSI” franchise.
I also would like to commend the efforts of three other supporting actors:
- What efforts are not wasted are from real comedian Harland Williams as “E.T. Lovacelli” known as “Sonar,” and Ken Hudson Campbell as the cook “Buckman.” Williams is a veteran from comedies such as the Farrelly brothers’ “Dumb & Dumber” and “Half Baked” and turns in subdued but effective work. Campbell earlier was in “Groundhog Day” and as “Santa” in “Home Alone” and he lets off the one flatulence joke here to wonderful effect (except for those aboard the sub).
- Toby Huss, who has numerous voice roles including TV’s “King of the Hill” and “Beavis and Butthead,” does a great job as “Nitro,” the sub’s electrician. He gets shocked several times, but again pulls the stereotype off with aplomb. His voice characterizations easily steal scenes such as as the one where he’s first singing like Frank Sinatra and then after getting a jolt begins talking like a baseball broadcaster.
So, I come to the lamest actor of the crew. The only completely wasted effort here is from Oswalt, a comedian in his first film after a handful of TV roles and who would become best known for his role on “The King of Queens.” Later, he joined “Two and a Half Men” after Charlie Sheen left, and along with the talentless Ashton Kutcher helped flush down the toilet what became dreck of a once-proud and creative sitcom. It was nice that Oswalt had just one line (“Admiral Graham on the radio for you, sir.”). It would have been perfect if he had none and all his scenes left on the cutting room floor.
“Down Periscope” earned $28.7 million on a budget of $31 million, according to Box Office Mojo, and was the 62nd ranked film at the box office for 1996. The No. 1 film of the year was “Independence Day” with $306.1 million. Films from that year I’ve reviewed include:
- “2 Days in the Valley” (OUTSTANDING flick) – click here for my review
- “Scream” (tremendous horror classic) – click here for my review
- “Broken Arrow” (good Travolta action vehicle) – click here for my review
- “That Thing You Do!” (wonderful music flick) – click here for my review
- “First Kid” (not bad Disney effort) – click here for my review
- “The Late Shift” (simply terrific HBO movie) – click here for my review
- “Jingle All the Way” (Arnie Christmas film) – click here for my review
- “My Fellow Americans” (good presidential buddy film) – click here for my review
- “Tin Cup” (Kevin Costner golf comedy-drama) – click here for my review
Other cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Matt Landers, who plays the executive officer of Macy’s submarine (“Orlando XO” in the credits), has several films from the 1980s that are still very familiar today, including “Die Hard,” “Flashdance,” and “48 Hrs.” plus the Arnold Schwarzenegger excellent action-but no acting “Commando” (click here for my review).
- Torn is probably best recognized as “Zed” in “Men in Black” and its sequel (he had an uncredited role as an alien in the third “Black” film). He has 188 credits in a career that began in 1956 and his last was in 2014.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “The USS Stingray in the movie was actually the USS Pampanito, a WWII era Balao class submarine. In the Pacific Theatre, it sank or heavily damaged ten ships.”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The USS Pampanito could not move under her own power. The underwater shots were scale models. The surface shots actually were the Pampanito, however she was being towed.”
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