When I used to blog consistently at kingmyno.blogspot.com, I had a series I called "A passionate defense of." I’d take movies that I felt were unfairly maligned and defend them to the death, if “the death” meant “a thousand words of fanatical rambling.” Well, now that I’ve got a new blog upon which to focus my time and energies, it’s time to bring back this old classic and revisit the 1996 submarine comedy Down Periscope.
Kelsey Grammer stars as Lieutenant Commander Tom Dodge, a lifelong seaman who’s gotten in his fair share of scrapes along the way. After being passed over numerous times for command, he’s finally given a sub of his own…with a catch. It’s a shitty diesel with a ragtag crew, and he’ll have to whip them into shape or risk torpedoing his career for good.
If that sounds like it belongs on the back of a VHS box, good. On paper, this movie should be the lamest paint-by-numbers 90s comedy of all time. The conceit is beyond clichéd and easy to mock; a comedy about the Navy that ends with “In the Navy” is either incredibly self-aware or completely oblivious.
I like to think it’s the former, but I could also see plans for a Down Periscope franchise glimmering in director David S. Ward’s eyes.
Yet it comes together, at least for me, because of the cast. My god, that cast. If it looks a little sad in 2014, I promise that it was the perfect mix of the best 1996 had to offer. Grammer is picture-perfect as the overly confident but endearing jackass who can’t help but call bullshit on his commanding officers, including sympathizer Rip Torn and antagonist Bruce Dern (yes, two-time Academy Award nominee Bruce Dern is in this movie). The token female is Lauren Holly’s Lt. Emily Lake, who was in her post-Dumb and Dumber heyday and brings an exemplary mix of begrudging acceptance and middle-aged hotness to an otherwise-blah role.
Along with them, you’ve got Rob Schneider as screaming insurgent XO Marty Pascal (arguably his best role and best performance); Harry Dean Stanton as the grizzled chief engineer; Ken Hudson Campbell (of Armageddon's "Steve Buscemi's craziness gets him blown off the asteroid" fame) as Buckman the cook; Toby Huss (The Wiz from Seinfeld) as Nitro the eccentric electrician with a Frank Sinatra impression; Harland Williams (a few years before his brilliant cameo in There’s Something About Mary) as lovable sonar technician Radar…it just goes on and on. Patton Oswalt pops in, William H. Macy is there. All of Hollywood’s stars came out to shine!
The best part is, they all look like they’re having fun. If anyone was showing up and collecting a paycheck, you can’t tell from the final product. Directed by Ward (of Major League fame) and written by Hugh Wilson (unsurprisingly, also the writer of Police Academy), it’s a throwback to an era when a comedy could make $37 million on a $31 million budget and no one would declare it a catastrophic disappointment (meaning, before the Internet). Although I’m not sure how Down Periscope cost that much goddamn money back in 1996.
Down Periscope has a 12% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a disgusting shame. Name me another "throwaway" 90s comedy that can boast this cast, or such a solid script. It’s just ribald enough to stand out (“I want a man with a tattoo on his dick!” Torn’s Admiral Winslow bellows to Dodge at one point) while still being fun for (almost) the whole family. It didn't set the tone for a decade of edgy imitators or spark a dozen burgeoning careers, but that doesn't make it a failure. The world needs PCU just as much as it needs The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
“Buckman!” Pascal yells at one point. “There was a fingernail in my food, you fat-ass moron! Yesterday, it was a Band-Aid!”
“Sorry, sir,” replies Buckman. “The Band-Aid was holding the fingernail on.”
That’s the kind of witty repartee you can expect from Down Periscope. They just don’t make movies like this anymore. And that’s a shame, because not every comedy has to be an event like The Hangover. Much like 2011’s Cedar Rapids, they can be small in scale, dumb in theory and extremely solid in execution. If only that wasn’t so much to ask.