Gene Hackman proves once again, this time in "Crimson Tide," why he is one of our best actors, taking a character that could have been played as a broad variation on Captain Queeg and instead investing him with depth and dimension.

There's a bit of "The Hunt for Red October," "Das Boot" and "Dr. Strangelove" here, along with a generous dollop of "The Caine Mutiny," but instead of a mishmash the result is a first-rate thriller that delivers an enormous amount of suspense. If you're looking for an intelligent nail-biter, this early entry in the summer sweepstakes is just the ticket.

Hackman plays Capt. Ramsey, a Navy veteran and by-the-book, blue-collar war-horse. The film's setting is the near future, and Russia is in the throes of civil war when rebels threaten to fire nuclear missiles at America. Ramsey is ordered to take a nuclear sub into dangerous waters with a new second-in-command executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Hunter (Denzel Washington, who matches Hackman in the acting department), a Harvard-educated sophisticate with no combat experience.

Screenwriter Michael Schiffer ("Colors") and director Tony Scott ("Top Gun," "True Romance") take pains to help us understand the differences in Ramsey and Hunter's leadership styles and when they finally clash, it is not a simple matter of one being right and the other being wrong.

When they get the order to fire missiles on Russia, Ramsey is ready to do so, and Hunter backs him up. But during a confrontation with an aggressive Russian sub, radio communication is lost just as a second message is coming through. The garbled transmission could be an order to cancel the launch, Hunter reasons. But Ramsey insists on going forward.

As tension mounts, Hunter takes command, forcing Ramsey out. Ramsey screams mutiny and begins plotting to take back the ship. Meanwhile, the radio operators scramble to get that second message.

Tony Scott has ruined many a movie with his MTV-influenced quick-cut editing style and angled camera movement, but here he allows the drama of the conflict and his two fabulous lead actors to take precedence over razzle-dazzle technique. And the script, reportedly punched-up by other writers, is loaded with crackling wit.

What really makes the film a class act, however, is that there are complex characters dealing with complicated issues and it never cops out to simplicity. Anyone with service experience will also recognize the telling small touches that give the film a sense of reality.

"Crimson Tide" is rated R, which is unfortunate. With a very small amount of trimming — just a few words — this could easily have been a PG-13-rated movie.