Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Scriptwriter Graham Yost had been so busy churning out tough-guy actioneers that it seemed only a matter of time before his creativity curdled. His previous efforts included a pair of trigger-happy John Woo shoot’em-ups “Hard Target” and “Broken Arrow” along with Jan De Bont’s careening epic “Speed.” Yost’s uncredited contribution to the sloppy Howie Long potboiler “Firestorm” changed nothing, but the prolific scribe appears really to have deep-sixed himself with the weather-beaten Morgan Freeman & Christian Slater thriller “Hard Rain” (** OUT OF ****), director Michael Salomon’s half-drenched drama about an armored car heist. The bad scenes outnumber the good ones, and the filmmakers let their characters wander around in a moral morass far too long before they expose their villainous or heroic characteristics.

Originally scheduled by Paramount Pictures for a 1997 release under the generic title “Flood,” “Hard Rain” capitalized on the success of disaster movies such as “Daylight,” with Sylvester Stallone, “Dante’s Peak,” with Pierce Brosnan, and the Tommy Lee Jones lava fest “Volcano.” When those disaster movies went belly up, the producers of “Hard Rain” treaded water. Moreover, since its earlier release date, “Hard Rain” has undergone more than a title change. Not only have the credits been juggled, but the script also apparently has been rewritten. Morgan Freeman (fresh from his box office success in “Kiss the Girls”) acquired top billing over co-star & co-producer Christian Slater.

Basically, “Hard Rain” is virtually a disaster itself. Yost’s uneven script appears the chief culprit. He swamps it with too many unlikely situations and some characters get way out of line. The concept of staging a heist during a devastating deluge must have seemed enticing when the producers pitched the premise. Indeed, the Yost script opens with an interesting predicament. Before “Hard Rain” lets up, you’ll feel tired of wading through yet another undistinguished semi-disaster/semi-crime caper flick. Altogether, “Hard Rain” showers its audiences with a wishy washy saga, suspicious characters, and a muddled sense of morality that rivals the Wesley Snipes & Woody Harrelson opus “Money Train.”

A rookie armored car guard, Tom (Christian Slater), has resigned from his construction job to work with his Uncle Charlie (Ed Asner of TV’s “Lou Grant”). As the film unfolds, Tom and Charlie are hauling about $3-million dollars of cold, hard cash from a Midwestern bank that flood waters are about submerge. As they try to leave town, they get stuck, and the flood rises over their ankles in the cab. Charlie radios the National Guard, and the two of them sit on the loot.

About that time, a band of thieves led by Jim (Morgan Freeman) show up. One of the villains, Kenny (Michael Goorjian) cuts loose, and they shoot it out. The scene is effective as well as eerie, with creepy spotlights blazing white-hot holes in the night skies. Goorjian gives a terrific performance as an idiot henchman who Jim has brought along because Jim promised his father he’d care of Kenny. Anyway, Charlie dies from a bullet wound, but Tom manages to escape. Resourceful guy that he is, Tom drags off the bags of the loot. The villains are always several steps behind the heroes and heroines in “Hard Rain” in hot (or as the case is ‘wet’) pursuit.

Meanwhile, the sheriff (Randy Quaid) has been evacuating the flooded town. It seems that he is serving out his last two weeks. Everybody believes the mayor sabotaged his re-election bid, because the sheriff had been in office far too long, twenty years too long. The sheriff tries to persuade an elderly couple, Henry (Richard Dysart) and Doreen (Betty White), to clear out of town before they drown. They’re determined to safeguard their store, so they are laying out bear traps when the sheriff intervenes. Dysart and White dredge up the only humor in the film as an incredibly grumpy couple. The only time you hear the “f--k” word in “Hard Rain” is as Henry reprimands Doreen for her outrageously bitchy behavior. TV’s “Golden Girl” White steals every scene as the suspicious, unrelenting spouse.

After he’s hidden the loot, Tom seeks refuge. He stumbles into a sandbagged church, and Karen (Minnie Driver) mistakes him for a looter. She decks him with a huge crucifix. Eventually, Tom regains consciousness and finds himself in jail. When he explains his predicament, the sheriff and his deputies leave him locked-up and go out to investigate. About that time, the guy manning the dam--Hank (Wayne Duvall)--has to open the floodgates and inundate the city with more water.

“Hard Rain” broadly resembles “Broken Arrow.” Substitute the stealth jet with an armored car along with John Travolta’s thief of nukes with Uncle Charlie’s scheme to steal the loot, and you have a clever but contrived variation. Add to the formula a heroine along the lines of the Samantha Mathis park ranger character, and you get Minnie Driver. She’s cast as an expert who restores stained glass church windows. She is so committed to preserving her stain-glass handiwork that she is willing to risk death by drowning.

“Hard Rain” bristles with a motley crew of characters. Nobody seems to represent who they really are. Yost exploits the natural disaster to bring out either the good or the bad in everybody. Randy Quaid’s sheriff exemplifies this as a veteran lawman that crosses over the line after two decades of wearing a badge. Morgan Freeman presents even a better example. He gives a deep, soulful performance, too, in a role he is clearly above in what he brings to what it lacks. Freeman’s Jim is an honorable thief. He neither triggered the accidental shoot-out that cost Uncle Charlie his life nor did he abandon the cretinous Kenny whose welfare he had been entrusted, but to say more would ruin the resolution.

Former photographer Michael Salomon keeps the pace trim with several vigorous, full-throttled, hell-bent action sequences. Nevertheless, he cannot rinse a script soaked with cliches. Initially, “Hard Rain” qualifies as a modern day version of Sergio Leone’s classic Spaghetti western “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.” Tom hides the loot in a cemetery before Karen clobbers him and lands him in jail. The sheriff grows greedy and decides to split the $3-million booty among his deputies while Jim pursues Tom. Moreover, Jim and Tom form an uneasy alliance against the lawmen when it’s clear the sheriff has decided that they must die.

The best parts of “Hard Rain” are the action scenes. They rock. Literally, when guns are fired, the cameras shudder to heighten the violence. The gunshots (in a good sound system) burst in your ears like mortar shells. The jet-ski scene in the high school is fun. Obviously, the filmmakers are playing on the secret desire some moviegoers may harbor about a perverse wish to trash the halls of their high school. The sight of power boats crashing through stained glass windows and shattering them to hell and gone is rather exciting, too.

Sadly, the unpredictable characters undermine “Hard Rain.” When the characters decide which side of the law to support, you feel little sense of relief. The villains seem too sympathetic to truly hate. The entirely empathetic reasons for their actions make them sympathetic. “Hard Rain” exemplifies one of those rare movie misfires where the characters stimulate more interests than the plot.
If anybody in “Hard Rain” deserves kudos, production designer J. Michael Riva certainly does. Riva and his associates used a large, Palmdale, California, aircraft hanger where B-1 bombers were assembled to photograph the action. “Hard Rain” may whet your appetite. This slickly packaged, class-oriented disaster drifts too far from formula to qualify as an exemplary Christian Slater movie like “True Romance,” “Broken Arrow,” or “Kuffs.”

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