Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Hard Rain (1998)

Dir. Mikael Salomon
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Randy Quaid, Minnie Driver

The mid ‘90s saw every type of natural disaster feature at the cinema: volcanoes (Dante’s Peak, Volcano), tornadoes (Twister), giant radioactively-mutated lizards (Godzilla)… Hard Rain is another offering, this time presenting the viewer with a much more believable natural threat: a Midwestern town inundated with floodwater.

In 1993 the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers flooded, swamping some 30,000 square miles and causing around $15 billion damages. This obviously influenced writer Graham Yost (the man behind Speed) who then put pen to paper on what would become Hard Rain. The film sees constant rainfall, swollen rivers, and a dam under pressure to contain the raging torrents. At the heart of the story is the Indiana town of Huntingburg, the floodwaters swirling through its streets. But Hard Rain is not a disaster movie. It is a heist movie.

As the citizens of Huntingburg evacuate the businesses and banks are clearing out too. The last armoured security van out of town is crewed by Tom (Christian Slater) and his crotchety Uncle Charlie (Ed Asner – the old geezer from Up); in the back is a cool $3m. But also in town is a gang of armed robbers led by Morgan Freeman’s Jim. They know where the truck is, they know what it contains, and they want the money.

Their plans go awry however. Charlie is shot dead and Tom escapes with the money, stashing it in a safe place. He then has to keep ahead of the gang who are on his tail. Complicating matters are the independent Karen (Minnie Driver) who is determined to protect the church she has been restoring, and Sheriff Mike Collig (Randy Quaid) and his two deputies. Events spiral into a tense actioneer as the various groups play a violent game of cat-and-mouse throughout the submerged town.

The film contains plenty to keep the viewer interested, not least a regular procession of explosive set piece action scenes. The initial stick up at the armoured van leads to a jet ski chase through the corridors of a flooded school. Tom has to escape from a prison cell as the waters rise ever higher around him. There is a shoot-out at the swamped cemetery, bullets pinging off the tombstones and mausoleums, before a siege at the church. Meanwhile Karen finds herself handcuffed to the banister at her house while the floodwaters swell. Unpredictability comes from the creaking old dam and its need to open extra sluices to control the floodwater: Huntingburg lies right in its path. The threat that the dam might breach is ever present as the town is submerged. Throw in a series of stunning sets representing Huntingburg and its buildings, some comedy old timers played with relish by Betty White and Richard Dysart, some passable repartee between Slater and Driver and a really good twist about half-way through that I certainly didn’t see coming (and which I shall endeavour not to spoil for you here) and the film rattles along at a breathless pace.

"You boy! No jet skiing in the corridors!"

Genial old Morgan Freeman, the only actor who could manage to portray Nelson Mandela, a black American president and God without anyone feeling insulted, here plays a thinking-man’s crook (complete with bad-ass earring and shed-loads of guns). His gang comprise former high school science teacher and explosives expert Mr Mehlor (Dann Florek), the Samuel L. wannabe Ray (Ricky Harris) given to quoting apposite Biblical passages, and big-mouthed first-timer Kenny (Michael Goorjian). Ranged against him is the outgoing Sheriff doing one final job and his two deputies, the rather unfriendly Wayne (Mark Rolston) and the naïve Phil (Peter Murnik). Christian Slater does his best as an action hero though I’ve never been entirely sold on him in this sort of role. Minnie Driver made the film following on from breakthrough successes in Grosse Pointe Blank and Good Will Hunting.

Yet, with all this in its favour it was a flop. It had a budget of $70m and only recouped $20m at the US box office. It was, apparently, released straight-to-video in most countries after is limping performance in America, which might explain why I could not remember it. It’s a shame, because I rather enjoyed it. The flooded town provided an interesting twist to an action thriller, as the competing participants had to contend with the water as well as each other.

What have I learnt about Indiana?
Not that much. The film has a real Midwest setting – small town, interesting locals, danger of flood inundation – but other than the references to Huntingburg frankly it could have been in any state from Idaho to West Virginia. But the concept of a flooded town is a good one. We have all seen those images from the Midwest before – JCBs piling up earthen levees, walls of sandbags surrounding the buildings, mobilisation of the National Guard, evacuations and concerned citizens worrying about looters. This is territory where nature’s wrath is not entirely tamed. The dam tries to hold back the floodwater, but has to vent increasing amounts to prevent its own collapse. Little towns like Huntingburg lie right in the path of any deluge.

Also wages are clearly not great, whether we are talking about Charlie the security guard or Mike the sheriff. And like all sheriffs in America, Huntingburg’s is elected – and can be unelected just as easily.

Can we go there?
Huntingburg is located in Dubois County, south-west Indiana. According to Wikipedia it has the nickname ‘Hollywood of the Midwest’ – as well as Hard Rain the Madonna movie A League of their Own was also shot there. Contrary to its depiction in the movie there are in fact no major rivers or dams nearby. There are a couple of reservoirs, but that’s it.

Lots of the interiors and action sequences were filmed in a specially converted aircraft hangar in Palmdale, California. Reassuring to know that they didn’t actually flood the town church!

Overall Rating: 3/5

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