"Dead Calm" is a rare little movie, not only is it an 80s movie which is as entertaining now as it was back in 1989 it also is surprisingly tense even when you know what is coming. What is more surprising is that it is simple, crazy man takes over the boat belonging to the husband and wife who helped save him and then leaves the husband on a doomed ship which is sinking. That is it, 3 people, 2 locations and a hell of a lot of water but it works, well works to a point because whilst tense "Dead Calm" is at times a little stupid none more so when it comes to the ending which director Phillip Noyce adds some out of place flare to.
After a traumatic road accident John Ingram (Sam Neill - Enigma) takes his wife Rae (Nicole Kidman - Bewitched) for a sailing vacation in the hope the time alone in the middle of the ocean will help them move on. But things turn nasty when they encounter Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane - Titanic) who says he is the sole survivor of a ship which is sinking but is most certainly not what he seems.
The thing about "Dead Calm" is that throughout director Phillip Noyce creates a wonderful atmosphere. The opening has this ominous sense of what happens as Captain John Ingram returns from duty to be met by police with bad news and take him to the hospital. We don't know what has happened, has his wife died somehow, we know they want him to ID a body and then we discover in a visual moment of horror where we witness the accident and car crash which kills John and Rae's young son, a scene with such impact that you still remember the intensity of it long after the movie has ended.
The irony is that this wonderfully crafted opening is just the reason for why Rae and John have gone sailing, to get away from everything and to try and move on from the traumatic event. This leads to them rescuing Hughie who panicly rows to their boat from the one he was on saying that not only is it sinking but food poisoning has claimed the lives of all the other passengers. And this leads us to the main story as John examines the other boat and discovers the grave truth that Hughie is a killer and worse Hughie has gone off on his boat with Rae.
What follows on from here is a lesson in tension, we have the simple tension which is John aboard a boat which is flooding and he has to try and repair it so that he can give chase after Hughie so he can rescue Rae. Then we have Rae aboard their boat having to deal with the dangerous Hughie who struts around the boat with a swagger, half menacing, half sexy. And whilst Rae manages to make contact with John aboard the other boat it is not only through simple yes no clicks as the radio is broken but also the fact that he has maybe 6 hours before the boat goes down.
This means we have Rae having to be the heroine, she has to find someway of taking control of the boat back so that she can go back and save John before it is too late. Sadly this is where things get a bit hit and miss because what Rae puts herself through in order to save John is epic and really adds to the atmosphere. Yet we have the stupidity because there are numerous occasions when Rae could have clearly killed Hughie but chose not to making it a bit laughable. It still is laughable with great tension but goes slightly wrong.
What isn't wrong is the casting with all 3 stars doing a good job in their individual roles. Sam Neill is believable as a man of the sea, so much that when he has to try and get the other boat operational it seems realistic. Then there is Nicole Kidman as his pretty wife who equally has the realism of a woman who does know her way around a boat making it believable, well believable when she doesn't take the opportunity to kill Hughie when it arrives. But the star of "Dead Calm" is Billy Zane because he does such a good job of playing dangerous, be it in a menacing evil sense or in a sexy sense, I hate the word but he has swagger.
What this all boils down to is that whilst "Dead Calm" was made in the 80s it is still as good today as it was then with a brilliant atmosphere which makes it so exciting. But it is by no means perfect and there are moments of stupidity which spoil the believability of it no more so than the ending as director Phillip Noyce attempts to deliver some flare to proceedings.