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Hard Rain

HARD RAIN is a very enjoyable ‘90s studio action movie (with a side order of disaster) that it turns out I must never have seen. I thought I had, but I would’ve remembered how good it is!

It starts, like many good films, by pulling out of the Paramount logo and using the logo’s mountain as part of its scenery. I was thinking it would be cool if it continued to be in the background of shots throughout the movie, but no dice.

Anyway, a very cool shot that I think combines live action, digital and miniature models establishes the geography of the small town of Huntingburg, Indiana, where the Sheriff (Randy Quaid, VEGAS VACATION) is trying to evacuate the locals as the titular aggressive precipitation causes flooding that will soon be worsened by trouble with levees and dams.

Meanwhile this dude Tom (Christian Slater, THE WIZARD) and his uncle Charlie (Edward Asner, voice of Jabba the Hutt, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi – The Original Radio Drama) are working their shitty job driving an armored car, and they get stuck on a flooded road, unable to move further. Suddenly they’re blinded by floodlights and some guys pretend they’re going to help, but of course they really intend to rob the car. Uncle Charlie is mistakenly shot to death in the hubbub and Charlie runs away with the money.

I wondered why he would go through the trouble of protecting someone else’s money in this situation, but the leader of the thieves, Jim (Morgan Freeman, TEACHERS), helpfully speculates that it’s for protection. Tom knows they won’t kill him if he’s the only one who knows where the money is.

Though the Morgan Freeman gravitas caused me to assume he’d be some kind of mastermind, Jim kinda seems like he’s just some dude. I mean, he’s cocky enough to wear a cowboy hat and earrings, but so are alot of people. His crew consists of Bible-quoting Ray (Ricky Harris, MURDER WAS THE CASE: THE MOVIE, TALES FROM THE HOOD, THICK AS THIEVES, SIMON SEZ), young nervous guy Kenny (Michael A. Goorjian, SLC PUNK!, Party of Five) and Mr. Mehlor (Dann Florek, Mr. Slate in THE FLINTSTONES), a fired high school science teacher who’s in charge of explosives.

Kenny is the dipshit who accidentally shot Charlie, pissing off Jim to no end. But he keeps him along because “His father asked me to look after him.”

The first big action sequence is a classic. While Tom tries to get away on foot, sloshing his way through the rising water, Jim and the gang break into a boating store and steal a small motorboat and some jet skis. Tom breaks into a middle school where they chase him through the flooded hallways on their jet skis – then he steals one and gets to take his turn. It looks very real and I love how Ray confidently ducks under the hanging light fixtures.

Tom manages to hide the money in a cemetery and take refuge in a church, but rather than being offered the traditional sanctuary he’s mistaken for a looter, gets bonked on the head with a large crucifix and wakes up at the town jail. His attacker was Karen (Minnie Driver, STAGE FRIGHT), who was working on a restoration of the church and straggling to try to start some kind of pumps so her work won’t be ruined.

Tom explains what’s up (a little too slowly – you oughta lead with “my armored car was robbed” in my opinion) and the cops go to check it out, leaving him locked in the cell like a misunderstood gunslinger in an old western. So now we wait to find out if they’re in on it or if they’ll decide they want to be in on it or if they’ll just get killed right away or what.

Okay, I’ll SPOILER it – they are not in on it, but decide they want the money themselves. So now there are more people with guns to look out for. The sheriff feels he’s justified in shooting them because “they’re looters,” which is of course ironic because he too has decided that a natural disaster is a good opportunity to steal. Worse, this deputy Wayne (Mark Rolston, ALIENS, LETHAL WEAPON 2, ROBOCOP 2) decides to get rapey. Asshole.

That part’s no fun until he gets his. Otherwise this is a great time. There are so many nice little visual touches. The opening shot has a conspicuous McDonalds in the town, which later helps us gauge the water level when we see the top of the arches poking out. Similarly, there’s a statue of a soldier on a horse with a sword (I hope he’s not a Confederate) which we see uncovered, then mostly covered, then we see it again when a boat crashes into it and breaks its propeller. That was some Brian DePalma shit.

There’s lots of little problem-solving things: using a flashlight as a breathing tube, being handcuffed to a banister and having to unscrew it one piece at a time to move up the stairs ahead of the rising water. My favorite is when Tom is left alone in a jail cell and does the classic “whip your belt like a lasso to try to hook onto the keys that have been left out on a desk” maneuver. Except it makes more sense than in the old westerns because the building is flooding so he just needs to get the desk to float in his direction. And then when it works he realizes, duh – these aren’t the keys to the cell, these are just somebody’s car keys (which is communicated to us visually with the Ford logo).

I like that it’s epic in its disaster/adventure but also has that OMEGA MAN type feel of a hauntingly empty town where you can just go where you want. There is one other set of characters, the funny old bickering couple played by Betty White and Richard Dysart. They’re introduced telling the sheriff they haven’t left yet because they’re setting traps for looters, so you know that will come up again.

Neither Tom or Karen is a very well-defined character – like, I’m not sure why she’s so confident about pushing a cop into the water and ditching him! – but Slater and Driver are both pretty charming and have goofy little moments together like when they’re trapped in somebody’s car and then look through the owner’s tapes and note that they have the FOOTLOOSE soundtrack.

Also there’s a funny idea that she talks a bunch about how much work she’s put into restoring the stained glass windows in the church, so we have to think of it when Tom breaks one to fire out of, then a boat crashes through one, then more of them get shot up. I think this is the first time I’ve seen a movie where there are such stakes involved in this kind of property damage.

The genius of the movie is that it successfully captures the thrills of a big studio post-DIE HARD action movie (UNDER SIEGE-worthy score by HELLRAISER’s Christopher Young, outstanding flooding effects and model work, crazy action on a variety of water-based vehicles, shootouts and explosions) but also feels very intimate and small time and personal. If there’s a character who is anywhere near the best at what they do it’s Karen at restoring stained glass, which as I’ve already explained does not turn out well for her. Otherwise we have a hero who used to sell construction equipment and now works a shitty security job he got from his uncle, and he’s facing not a master criminal but just some guy who knows his uncle who’s being opportunistic during the flood. And in the end the two are kind of on the same side against the also opportunistic sheriff of a small town who recently lost an election and seems to be hated by many of the locals.

And it’s unusually good hearted for the genre. I was really impressed by the part where Tom is being attacked by Kenny (who killed his uncle!) in the water and realizes they need to climb out of the water up a wall because a transformer is about to explode. The standard action movie move would be to climb up the wall as his foe is electrocuted behind him, but instead he tells Kenny to get out of the water and tries to take his hand when he chooses the metal ladder that won’t save him. And at the end of the movie after all the fighting he floats up to Jim and asks, “You all right?” I love it!

After the movie I read a quote from Freeman saying that (SPOILER) Jim originally died, but test audiences didn’t want him to die and thought he should get some money. It doesn’t seem tacked on to me, though. It seems more like the ending of THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS. In fact, there should be several sequels where Jim and Tom team up for bigger and more ridiculous flood adventures.

As appealing as all this is to me, it seems it didn’t gel for people at the time. It’s obviously an expensive movie – $70 million according to Wikipedia – and made less than $20 million at the box office, causing Total Film to label it the biggest flop of 1998 (the year of GODZILLA, SPHERE, THE AVENGERS, SIX DAYS SEVEN NIGHTS, etc). To give you an idea, BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER had roughly the same budget and box office.

Though not as bad as that one, HARD RAIN got pretty bad reviews and Roger Ebert for some reason totally hated it. I shouldn’t have listened to those people for all these years! Thank you Fred Topel for bringing it up so many times.

I forgot about this, but Slater’s BROKEN ARROW director John Woo was originally set to direct it. He left to do FACE/OFF, so we gotta respect that. Instead the director is Mikael Salomon, and it’s the second of his three feature directorial works, after A FAR OFF PLACE (a 1993 PG-rated Disney adventure about teenagers and a bushman crossing the Kalahari Desert to escape murderous poachers) and before FREEZER (a 2014 DTV thriller about Dylan McDermott waking up trapped in a meat locker). He’s mostly directed TV shows (Nash Bridges, Band of Brothers, Rome), but he started as a cinematographer in Denmark and then came to Hollywood and did ALWAYS, ARACHNOPHOBIA and BACKDRAFT. But exactly as Jan de Bont was hired to direct SPEED because he’d shot DIE HARD, I’m pretty sure Salomon got this job because he was the cinematographer for THE ABYSS. If you’re filming a movie mostly on sets in giant water tanks you gotta have a guy who’s willing to get wet.

And just like SPEED, the script is by Graham Yost (this time not rewritten by Joss Whedon, as far as I’ve read). And really this is the bridge between him as the guy who wrote SPEED and the guy who created Justified. It’s got the giant action and the down to earth characters, including criminals so dumb they accidentally murder an accomplice at the very start of the crime, but also relatable enough that it’s kind cute when they celebrate a bomb going off by yelling “Did you see that!?” and high-fiving while on jet skis.

If I could go back in time I would give them a quote that says HARD RAIN drives a hard bargain, do NOT give it a rain check!


This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 14th, 2021 at 11:40 am and is filed under Action, Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “Hard Rain”

  1. I saw this when it came out on VHS, and thought at the time that it was just the dumbest thing I had ever seen, absolute proof that civilization was collapsing and we were going to become an idiocracy.* But apparently my standards have really plummeted since then because this review makes it sound like a lot of fun. Or, possibly, the landscape of corporate cinema has gotten so much further homogenized that the idea of a fun, silly action picture with a high-concept twist feels legitimately exciting. My recent delight over THE HURRICANE HEIST (hopefully Vern can edit this and put it in the correct typeface) could just as easily support either possibility, although it does not exactly refute the idiocracy argument.

    *I did not yet have this helpful word to describe the bleak future I was envisioning.

  2. I saw this when it came out for rent and really enjoyed it. I don’t remember a whole lot about it, but I know I liked it. Must be time for another viewing.

    I don’t remember if I was surprised at the *SPOILER* heel turn Randy Quaid does, but I do remember enjoying his villainy. The good old days before he lost it. I saw maybe the last thing he ever did before his total meltdown. He was in a musical that was debuting in Seattle before going on to Broadway that was a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor but done as a western. After I saw it the show folded due to him going bonkers and never made it to Broadway.

  3. I was gonna say Franchise Fred will be so happy for this. I love how every time it rains in LA he posts a link to his review.

    I remember the trailer for this ran forever and the big moment of Randy Quaid turning was spoiled when someone claims “But you’re the sheriff!” And he menacingly turns to camera and snarls “I’m the what?”

    An oft-quoted line in my dorm that year for sure.

    I was upset more people didn’t bring it up with Hurricane Heist (font pending) but I’m glad to find folks who appreciate the charm.

    (I also remember it being the beginning of foul mouth Betty White phase, preceded by Lake Plaicid)

  4. Thanks for the shout out, Vern. I effing love this movie and it’s my rainy day watch. The Die Hard in a flood of it all is badass enough but I also love the shifting allegiances, kind of a little Good, The Bad, and The Ugly if you will.

    I also love little details like the sound design. A lot of the dialogue sounds echoey because they have to shout over the rain and surely had to re-record most of it in post.

    But what I love most of all was this was originally called The Flood and even had a trailer out. They changed it to the far more bombastic Hard Rain. I think they made the right choice.

    PS it came out a week after Firestorm. Good double feature of Die Hard cum natural disasters.

  5. I remember getting this on VHS for Christmas 1998, and I watch the hell out of it. Always liked it, but I haven’t seen it since the VHS days. I might need to rewatch it.

  6. I had no knowledge of this movie whatsoever. I must have seen Fred mention it if he has so much, but I must have mentally glazed over it since I didn’t know what it was. It sounds awesome, though — and it’s written by Graham Yost?! I’ll make sure to watch it this weekend.

  7. Was this the last mostly practical blockbuster action movie? I guess Lethal 4 was that summer, but the summers of Godzilla/Armageddon and Mummy/Phantom Menace/Wild Wild West certainly spelled a transition.

  8. I remember the trailer for THE FLOOD. I also remember this movie always being rented out at the local Blockbuster everytime I looked for it. Seriously every other person I knew in uptown NYC had seen this back then.

    I didn’t finally get to see it till many years later on cable. I remember liking it much more than the last movie Freeman had done with a dramatic 80s teen actor diversifying his portfolio. That was the disappointment known as CHAIN REACTION.

    Interesting that Slater wanted to continue his flirtation with action under John Woo’s direction. Guess Travolta beat him to that when they tossed a coin on the set of BROKEN ARROW for first dibs on Woo for their next action showcase.

    I do wonder how this would’ve been had it taken place inside The Woo Zone. Will white doves unexplicably be flying through the setpieces during a cloudy and very rainy night? Would Slater have ridden 2 jet skis at the same time MASK OF ZORRO style or slide above a wave of water while retrieving a pistol? Like the answer to the question of how many licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie pop I suppose the world may never know.

  9. The idea of the ROTJ Radio Drama with Ed Asner always made me laugh, ever since I read about it in Star Wars Insider Magazine Featuring A Catalog Of Crap You Can Buy So Really It’s A Catalog. It just seemed like one of those insane random things, like Starship in the Holiday Special or whatever, until I grew up and learned that modern-day IRL Ed Asner is constantly tweeting about high-level illustrative comic book art, like I know he is boys with the great, lush comic book artist and remarkably minimally-elegant Batman: The Animated Series character designer, Kevin Nowlan, and they hold charity auctions together for a fund that helps out older comic book creators in financial need. He is a total nerd and was probably psyched to play Radio Jabba. I would bet he used to, like, bug Ted Knight about Gene Colan’s Howard The Duck run.

    Thank you for that reference, Vern, it brought a smile to my face. I should seek out what that performance sounds like, does he say, like, Bo Shuuda and shit?

    Also, yes, this movie seriously rules. Yes, Christian Slater is kind of just shitty Tiger Beat Nicholson, but you know what else, he is kind of like if they mixed Dennis Leary with River Phoenix. The idea of that is much funnier to me than it used to be.

  10. I have never seen this. It came out right at the peak of Morgan Freeman’s upswing as everybody was realizing this guy was legit, but Slater was definitely on the outs. It wasn’t really until ALONE IN THE DARK seven years later that we would truly bottom out, and then climb back up into respectability through years of low-impact character acting. I don’t think anybody was surprised when it bombed. I remember the trailers being boring, dark, and dreary. What’s to like?

    I will seek this out based on your recommendation. And Minnie Driver, who I did not know was in this film.

  11. A stroll down memory lane this review!
    Hard rain was one of my first DVD acquisitions.

    I live in Greece and was one of the first if not THE first person to get a DVD player here. It would be something like 3 years later at least till European DVDs with Greek subs came out.
    So at first when you could only find region 1 (US) DVDs, I started buying from a site called “dvd express” loads and loads of DVDs. Maybe I couldn’t afford to eat but damn it my DVDs had to come!!

    There’s something masochistic in watching a non anamorphic DVD on the 21 inch grundic 1980’s TV your father gave you, but that is what I did since I couldn’t afford a better TV yet.

    Back then if something bombed in the US, we NEVER got it theatrically here for various reasons. So I saw GREAT stuff like Hard Rain, Deep Rising and others not just first but eons before they came out in VHS here. One of those first DVDs for me that shook my world and turned it upside down was BLADE. No theatrical here, no news of its existence. Saw it and was blown away.

    Anyway sorry for the off topic. I love hard rain. And will find it to watch it again 23 years later as a tribute to your review Vern.

  12. I tracked it down and watched it, as I said I would, and it’s pretty good. The action and the setpieces are fantastic. Great combination of disaster movie and action movie. It also has the kind of ending I appreciate, where it doesn’t bother with an extended denouement or epilogue.

    The acting, though, was extremely, distractingly, bad. The actors who played Kenny and the one good sheriff were especially cringe-worthy. They both have long and ongoing careers (the latter was a recurring state trooper in Justified, and was good there) so the blame should probably fall on the director. I’m not baffled by the negative reception this received, like I thought I might be and sometimes am when I go back to revisit overlooked movies Vern recommends.

  13. I’ll throw in as someone who made sure to see this one in the theater and has been recommending it ever since. Two elements that really help that Vern didn’t mention are the redneck Quaid calls in and the dam he was monitoring. There are so many great character bits in a movie stuffed to the brim with tension. If you’ve never seen this, or don’t really remember it, give in and check it out. Awesome cast, many playing against or adjacent to type, some great action and really never a dull moment.

  14. Winchester: literally came here to bring up the trailer. I’M THE WHAT is still part of my vocabulary. I was so disappointed when that wasn’t in the actual movie! At least on the tape I rented.

  15. I saw this movie in the theater and several times since. It’s definitely one I like to return to now and again. I really like how in several of the set pieces such as the jail cell, and the handcuffed in the house the continuing level of this bad thing gets worse for the the hero then worse again then worse again.

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