Crash Dive (1996): Giz a Sub

Matty explores the impact of Andrew Stevens’ trendsetting action potboiler.

Recently, Schlock Pit fav Steve Latshaw — one of Royal Oaks Entertainment’s go-to screenwriters — told us that he was once reprimanded for trying to insert too much edgy material into his writing assignments. According to Latshaw, the shingle’s boss, Andrew Stevens, pulled him aside and told him to save the transgressive stuff for his spec scripts. At Royal Oaks “they weren’t making movies, they were making sausage”, and every, erm, sausage had to be the exact same size and shape, and have their meatiness (oo-er, missus!) determined by those who were planning to buy them. They were fashioning product, not art — and you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of their “build it to order and keep it to template” ethos than CRASH DIVE (1996). 

Laying the groundwork for the type of action flicks that would become Royal Oaks’ lifeblood after their previous cash cow, the erotic thriller market, floundered, Crash Dive is the very definition of ‘cookie cooker’ — and calculatedly so. As detailed in Stevens’ fascinating tome Producing For Profit: A Practical Guide to Making Independent and Studio Films, the genesis of Crash Dive and, indeed, the entirety of Royal Oaks’ run of military hardware programmers laid in an initially frustrating pre-sale meeting between Stevens and a Japanese investor. Attempting to drum up some business, Stevens pitched a family film only to be told that Japanese audiences wouldn’t be interested. As luck would have it, a novelty pen had been left in the meeting room and it would provide a burst of ad hoc inspiration. Inside the pen’s clicker was a little submarine so, as a lark, Stevens suggested a movie about a sub, a la the then-recent smashes The Hunt For Red October (1990) and Crimson Tide (1995). Instantly, the Japanese investor was intrigued. It turned out that films with submarines, jets, tanks, and other kinds of heavy duty vehicles and artillery were extremely popular in Japan. The investor cut Stevens a cheque for $350,000 on the spot, and Crash Dive’s core idea of ‘Die Hard (1988) on a nuclear sub’ was born.

The next chunk of Crash Dive’s budget came from Germany, where Stevens and his co-producer, Ashok Amritraj, were given $450,000 on the proviso that the action be frantic but nothing too explicit.

“Germany were buying action films, but nothing that was gratuitously violent or bloody because it wouldn’t pass the censors to play on prime-time television,” wrote Stevens. “At the prices I was pre-selling for, the buyers insisted on no gratuitous violence or gore because the revenues for late-night television sales are a fraction of what they are for prime-time.”

Because of this, Stevens encouraged scripter William C. Martell to aim for suspense and tension — though a couple of grisly entry and exit wounds were snuck into the finished film to satiate more bloodthirsty action fans.   

The final wads of cash came from Stevens’ frequent U.S. distributor, video company Cabin Fever Entertainment, and a Korean investment outfit who chipped in $350,000 a piece on the following conditions: Cabin Fever mandated that Crash Dive be toplined by someone with video drawing power and the Koreans wanted the film to feature scenes of hand-to-hand combat. Deeming him capable of ticking both boxes, Stevens cast American Ninja (1985) star Michael Dudikoff, and, with that, Crash Dive was off to the races.

Now, despite all of this probably reading as mechanical and appearing soulless in the extreme, it’s impossible to overstate Crash Dive’s actual brilliance. Within its own parameters it’s a fried gold triumph; a B-movie masterpiece of commerce, artistry, and genre-defining influence.

In regards to the former, the way in which Crash Dive fulfilled the market demands of those backing it ensured that it became a resounding financial success across the globe upon release [1]. It was tailored to a blueprint and it delivered. 

In regards to its creative achievements, it’s easily the best film that Stevens himself has ever directed. Enriched by solid technical credentials and an assortment of fine performances — primarily: Dudikoff as the reluctant but skilled hero; Frederic Forrest as a harangued admiral; Jay Acovone as a smart-mouthed officer; and the fabulous Reiner Schöne as the dastardly Euro-terrorist bad guy — Stevens crafts a ripping, thrillingly-paced yarn full of movement; natty, cost-effective set design; eye-catching cinematography; swaggering boys’ own-style adventure; claustrophobic high-stakes drama; and a general feeling of modest yet nonetheless sphincter-nipping excitement as Schöne and co. threaten to obliterate Washington. 

And in regards to its impact — well, how long have you got?

The debt that Crash Dive owes to Die Hard is echoed by the debt virtually every subsequent Royal Oaks hardware actioner owes to Crash Dive. From Worth Keeter’s Hijack: The Last Siege (1998) and Rick Jacobson’s Dudikoff-starring Executive Command (1997), to the likes of Anthony Hickox’s Storm Catcher (1999) and Jim Wynorski’s Final Voyage (1999) which Stevens would produce for his post-Royal Oaks stable Franchise Pictures/Phoenician — as already mentioned, what are they if not spins on the Crash Dive equipment/DTV star/non-gratuitous violence formula, right down to their use of cleverly harnessed stock footage to bolster their production values? [2] Stevens has even shepherded remakes of Crash Dive on two separate occasions: first with faux-sequel Counter Measures (1998) (which was brought in under the stewardship of his most trusted ally, the mighty Fred Olen Ray, reuniting with Dudikoff after The Shooter (1997)), and second with the doomed Dolph Lundgren opus Agent Red (2000). And in between the lot of ‘em, Stevens also recycled Crash Dive’s submarine set in his other sub-sploiters Steel Sharks (1997), Time Under Fire (1997), and Rapid Assault (1997) — just as his mentor Roger Corman would have done.

[1] In the U.S., Crash Dive debuted on HBO on Friday 28th March 1997 before landing on cassette through Cabin Fever two months later. In the U.K., it hit VHS via Columbia/Tri-Star in April ‘97, spent the early to mid-‘00s as a bargain bin DVD favourite, and today can still be found regularly playing on Freeview channel GREAT! Movies Action (née Movies4Men and Sony Movies Action).
[2] Naturally, here, it’s B-roll from Crimson Tide that’s been plundered.

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