Sunday, July 04, 2010

Underrated Movie #81: Hard Rain

How town! Summer in the city! The back of my neck is feeling dirty and gritty! It's time we indulged in some seriously silly action movies! Welcome to Cheesy Movies Week! Fair warning: I will be heaping praise on some widely-despised examples of cinema.
Title: Hard Rain
Year: 1998
Director: Mikael Salomon
Writer: Graham Yost
Stars: Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Randy Quaid, Minnie Driver, Ed Asner, Betty White

The Story: Two armored car guards try to clear the money out of the banks along a river before it floods, but a well-armed heist gang shows up to take advantage of the situation. One guard gets away with the money and the gang chases him through a rapidly-flooding town.

How it Came to be Underrated: Graham Yost sold three high-profile big action spec scripts for big money in rapid succession: First Speed, then Broken Arrow, then this. The other two earned back their big pricetags, but this one turned out to be one high-concept heist too many for audiences. Slater is underwhelming as always, but this is nevertheless an endlessly entertaining cheeseball heist/disaster flick that is criminally underseen.

Why It’s Great Cheesy Fun:

  1. I talked before about how important character consistency is in a movie like Sideways, but it’s even more important in a movie like this. We’ve got 15 characters, (two in the armored car, four in the heist crew, four in the sheriff’s office, two old coots, the guy who runs the dam, and Minnie Driver in the church) each of whom has a totally different motivation for being where they are, even within each group. The audience has to understand all 15 different personalities very quickly in the first ten minutes, because each will have an unexpected reaction once the heist happens. We get to compare their reactions to what we thought we knew about them. The reactions surprise us, but they still make sense with what we’d already learned. It’s remarkably good writing, all the more so because it plays like artless escapism.
  2. One problem with writing pulpy thrillers is that you not only have to come up with a believable reason why one person would try to kill another person, you have to keep coming up with more and more reasons—Every time the advantage shifts (which has to happen about every ten minutes), the original motivations tend to disappear and you have to come up with a new reason for violence to erupt.
  3. That’s why it’s so clever for this movie to combine the heist and disaster genre. First of all, the heist gives everybody a reason to put themselves in harm’s way, which most disaster movies lack. Second, the movie gets to jump back and forth between the flood and the villains as a source of conflict, so neither one has to go too far over the top.
  4. But all that pales in comparison with this movie’s true claim to fame: This was the very first movie in Betty White’s ongoing salty-talking-little-old-lady guest-cameo period, which has just now reached it apotheosis. Here you can see where it all began!

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Yost has had a very smart career: after making his name by selling a bunch of cheesy action spec scripts, he used that clout to change course and start creating critically-acclaimed TV shows like “Band of Brothers” and “Justified”. Good for him! That’s the dream of every cheesy-thriller writer.

How Available Is It?: The DVD is bare-bones, but I don’t think that the Criterion Collection is going to get around to this one anytime soon.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Uncanny Tales!


Unknown said...

Oooo, I may have a candidate for this category; it matches your criteria on a number of levels. Are you familiar with "The Hidden"? (Ignore its sequel.) This is the movie most likely to cause whiplash double-takes from people who know me, when I recommend it, but my affection for it has survived over several decades and a number of viewings.

Matt Bird said...

Never saw it. But Kyle MacLachlan always makes interesting choices. I should check it out.

Geoff said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matt Bird said...

Whoops, Geoff knows me too well and he guessed what was coming later in the week. I had to delete his comment to keep up the suspense!

Dan McCoy said...

I also endorse The Hidden.