' ' Cinema Romantico: Middling Thriller March: Hard Rain (1998)

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Middling Thriller March: Hard Rain (1998)

“Hard Rain” was released in that very brief period in the mid to late 90s when Hollywood unsuccessfully attempted to fashion Christian Slater as an action star, this waterlogged heist movie turning up two years after he starred opposite John Travolta in John Woo’s “Broken Arrow” (1996). At one point, Woo was slated to direct the “Hard Rain” too before dropping out. (Mikael Salomon stepped in.) You can see hints, though, of what might have drawn Woo to the material. There are plenty of shootouts, even a lingering closeup on Minnie Driver as she picks up and aims a shotgun, and by movie’s end Slater has ditched his armored truck uniform for a white t-shirt that clings to his body from all the water, a soaked gun-firing macho man. As it is, “Hard Rain” does not just fail to meet Woo’s operatic standards, it hardly leaves a mark at all, epitomized in its January 16th release date, a schlocky thriller that sadly wastes a stellar premise.

The beginning proves the high point, demonstrating some visual boldness and ingenuity with an aerial shot documenting the flood ravaging a small Midwestern town that soars down main street and ends in a close up of the eyes of Sheriff Mike Collins (Randy Quaid). “So,” says Sheriff Collins into his squad car CB, “are we all gonna die?” He’s speaking to Hank (Wayne Duvall), running the over-leveraged dam, trying desperately to keep the town from being destroyed, but it’s the way Quaid says the line that stands out. The line reading is so overcooked that it suggests a movie of pure, scrumptious cheese. As it is, we get some knockoff Cheez Whiz. Indeed, Salomon sets up the three-million dollar heist by staging a semi-oblique scene that seems to be a robbery until we realize, no, it’s just a pair of armored car guards, Tom (Christian Slater) and Charlie (Edward Asner), picking up the cash. The feint is wholly unnecessary, an artificial means to generate suspense and then induce a punchline that isn’t funny. And once Jim (Morgan Freeman) and his low quality crew come after the cash, it doesn’t get much better. If Salomon thinks outside the action movie box with a jet ski chase through the submerged hallways of a school, such panache is in otherwise short supply, the unique setting never playfully exploited.  

Slater seems to be trying for a kind of comically punchy hero, a little more John McClane than Jack Traven, but his lines are not all that funny and the little gleam in Slater’s eye makes this whole thing feel like more of a put-on than how Willis wearily rolls with the punches. Quaid’s turn, meanwhile, from good to bad, while intended as a surprise, feels oddly preordained. He shades sinister the whole way meaning that when he turns coat and shoots at Tom to take the money for himself, he feels less like an unappreciated public servant seeking to finally get his than a standard issue hammy bad guy. Freeman allows for a surprising amount of gravitas in his quest for One Last Score, a true career criminal, bringing a certain set of expectations for how a job is done, the manner in which he requests one of his cohorts to do something on his behalf - “Mr. Miller” - quietly implying a lived-in authority Driver, too, brings believable spunk, despite having less to do than the others; when her character, Karen, an art restorer, shoves a police lackey ferrying her to safety from the speedboat they’re sharing to go check on the stained glass windows of a church, you believe it.

Ah, the church. “Hard Rain” was originally titled “The Flood”, a moniker with a little more Biblical heft, and between that, the church, and one of Jim’s henchmen, Ray (Ricky Harris), penchant for citing quotes from the Good Book, it’s fair to wonder if Salomon had something more in mind, a movie in which all this rushing water has come to wash the prominent evil away. But in essentially emptying out the town, aside from an older couple who refuse to leave, Salomon does little to give the place itself any texture, undermining any sense of God rendering judgement. The Bible quotes prove nothing more than a recurring comedy bit that falls astoundingly flat and the church is merely a fancy place for a concluding shootout, the stained glass windows getting smashed to smithereens, like they never even mattered, an apt metaphor for “Hard Rain” itself. 

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