Opens: March 1, 1996 | Rated: PG-13
"Down Periscope" is one of that rare breed of movie extraordinarily worth waiting for on HBO.
It's adequately humorous, with a few outbursts of can't-help-it laughter (including an actually funny flatulence gag), but because of long rests between plot devices and a couple heartstrings moments that just don't float, this maritime comedy is not worth watching without something else to do.
Under the right circumstances however, say watching it on TV while ironing or fixing dinner, "Down Periscope" would be a worthy distraction.
The movie stars Kelsey Grammer, in his first film role, as submarine commander who is given the thankless task of fixing up a rusty, creaky World War II sub then leading an "Animal House" crew in a war game.
As a freshman vehicle for Grammer, "Periscope" does what he hoped. He hand-picked this script to show that he's capable of playing a confident, wise-cracking character, instead of the neurotic, wise-cracking Dr. Fraiser Crane, and he is.
The rest of the cast is a monkey barrel of cliches that, surprisingly, have some individuality seeping through their standardized molds (rebellious tough guy, Belushi-esque slob of a cook, etc.). A notable exception is Rob Schneider (the Saturday Night Live alumnus seen most recently in "Judge Dredd") as the sub's over-zealous second in command. He just plain stinks.
Rip Torn plays an admiral worried that surplus diesel submarines from the Russian navy are being sold to third world countries and might be able to sneak past the United States nuclear navy if the navy was having a bad day. A flimsy premise to be sure.
He assigns Grammer to take the relic submarine out to sea and try to attack the naval base at Norfolk, Va. like a rebel terrorist. Another higher-up (Bruce Dern) is out to sink our hero's career and personally takes charge of the blockade assigned to stop the rusty hulk.
Only the chase scenes in which the misfit crew try to out-smart the modern navy really make "Down Periscope" worth while, and the silent running gaffes are where most of the laughs come in. Especially funny is a scene in which the crew quietly mimes commands for several minutes, which is as silly, and as silent, as a Buster Keaton short.
Whenever "Down Periscope" is not engaged in cat-and-mouse the story drags, droning on with a sub-plot about Grammer playing father figure to the one female sailor (Lauren Holly), on board as part of an experimental program.
As a submarine comedy, there will be inevitable comparisons to "Operation Petticoat," and by that standard "Down Periscope" doesn't measure up, but as a cheap television distraction from chores on a Sunday afternoon, it would do nicely.
There is an additional interest here for Bay Area folks in that the retired sub used in the movie is the U.S.S. Pampanito, which is anchored in San Francisco, and most of the movie was shot near the Carquinez Straight, so there's plenty of recognizable scenery.
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