Jet Skis And Shootouts: The Waterlogged Action Cinema Of The '90s

If you asked me to describe my memory of '90s action movies in a single image, it would be this: our hero, wading through thigh-deep water, firing an endless barrage of bullets at whatever bad guy or monster happens to be offscreen. In my nostalgia-addled brain, it seems like every movie from that decade featured some combination of flooding and gunfights. And if this same reverence for waterlogged '90s blockbusters is what inspired Hollywood to churn out The Hurricane Heist, then I certainly can't complain. The math, at least as far as I'm concerned, checks out.

If there was a peak period for this particular type of movie, though, it must've come in the months between 1997 and 1998. In that six-month span, three action movies were released that serve as rorschach tests for the decade: Speed 2: Cruise Control, Deep Rising, and Hard Rain. Woven together by a shared love of jet skis and blockbuster films like Die Hard and Speed, these three movies could be regarded as variations on a single ridiculous theme. Even Roger Ebert, in his review of Deep Rising, pointed to the trend of recycling these action beats for his upcoming movies. "No sooner is there an indoor jetski chase in Hard Rain," Ebert wrote, "(then) there's one in Deep Rising." These films were also enough to drive Reddit user LundgrensFrontKick borderline insane in 2016 when he attempted to quantify the exact pain inflicted by jet skis movies at the domestic box office.

And different as these films may seem at first blush – other than the jet skis, of course – they also represented the best and worst of Hollywood's playbook. Each of these movies can be traced back to one of the highest-grossing films of the decade; there's more than a little Independence Day or Twister in Deep Rising and Hard Rain, and Speed 2 was an unabashed attempt to cash in on the success of Speed, a movie that was itself an attempt to cash in on the success of Die Hard. I once jokingly told my wife that Broken Arrow is the Rosetta Stone to my adolescence – the thing that allows you to understand who I am and where I come from – but the same could also be said for these other films. Together, they help frame what it mean to be an action movie of the 1990s.

Speed 2: Cruise Control

The first – and inarguably the least – of these films is Speed 2: Cruise Control, the sequel to the 1994 blockbuster Speed. Neither director Jan de Bont nor stars Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock originally had any intention of returning for a sequel; it was only after the original movie became a success that de Bont was made aware of his contractual obligation and pushed into pre-production on a second film. Bullock would return for the sequel only after 20th Century Fox promised to produce her passion project Hope Floats. To replace Reeves, Fox would cycle through a rolodex of potential leading men – including Hard Rain's Christian Slater – before landing on Jason Patric, the star of Sleepers and a man with a difficult reputation in Hollywood. If this seems like an odd fit in 2018, with the benefit of decades of hindsight, it was even odder fit at the time; Patric even refused to contribute to his own People Magazine puff piece hyping up the film's release.

Owing both to these changes and a difficult production history, Speed 2 will long be remembered as an unmitigated disaster. Despite an appropriately campy performance by Willem Dafoe – who coos gently to his bottle of leeches and hacks the world with the kind of technological illiteracy we can only find in mid-'90s action movies – Speed 2 somehow manages to achieve the trifecta of bad writing, incomprehensible action sequences, and poor chemistry between its leads. Whereas Speed ended on a sly note of self-awareness, pointing out that relationships begun under pressure never last, Speed 2: Cruise Control slogs its way through the who-cares question of whether Bullock and Patric's characters will agree to a loveless marriage. The only real satisfaction to be found in Speed 2 is in the sheer opulence of the film's closing number; according to The Guardian, the finale – where the ship crashes into a local town – was shot using practical effects and cost a whopping $25 million itself to finish. This is the kind of money that would sink any other production. For Speed 2, it was just another line item.

Deep Rising

The second-best film of this triptych is Deep Rising, the pre-Mummy release of filmmaker Stephen Sommers. Deep Rising was actually the last of these films to hit theaters; the movie would be released on January 30, 1998, opening against fellow Blockbuster Video stalwarts Desperate Measures and Zero Effect. Unlike Speed 2 – which at least managed to break even at the box office – Deep Rising was an unmitigated box office failure. Given an estimated budget of about $45 million, Sommers's film only managed to gross $11 million while in theaters. The film's negative reviews certainly didn't help; Variety called it "wafer-thin entertainment" while Roger Ebert, in his aforementioned write-up, dismissed it with a scathing, "been there, seen that."

On paper, Deep Rising doesn't seem like a movie that would stand the test of time. The film's leading man, Treat Williams, has spent the past two decades bouncing around television in a supporting role. The rest of the cast – featuring character actor stalwarts such as Kevin J. O'Connor, Wes Studi, and perpetual villain Anthony Heald – are names mostly remembered within the context of their decade than as standalone talents (all due apologies to Studi). It's easy to root for actors like Cliff Curtis and Jason Flemying in supporting roles in any film, but without an A-list celebrity anchoring Deep Rising, the movie felt like something of a B-movie exercise at the time and has only sunk further into this status in the intervening years.

Here's a twist, though: that's what makes it so much damn fun. Deep Rising may have received unfavorable comparisons to movies like Aliens on its release, but there's a self-awareness to Sommers's movie that makes it move with an ease other Aliens imitators lack. Only a movie this confident in its tone could blend gore, explosions, and swashbuckling humor – "You don't even know me!" is this film's delicious throwback to Casablanca – without losing its sense of cohesion of fun. Deep Rising understands, on a very basic level, that it's kind of a stupid movie; rather than wallpaper over that with self-serious acting decisions, Williams and company crank the dial and let the jokes fly. It's the same kind of sincere campiness that would propel The Mummy to be one of the highest-grossing movies of 1999. Peel back enough layers and the two movies – from their film serial-esque leads on down – are practically indistinguishable.

Hard Rain

Finally, we have Hard Rain, another box office flop and perhaps my personal favorite of an entire generation of Speed spinoffs/ripoffs. Prior to Hard Rain, director Mikael Salomon had worked in his native Denmark for more than two decades as a cinematographer; he would parlay this success into a DP role for beloved films like The Abyss, Always, and Arachnophobia. Salomon brings this eye for action and practical effects through Hard Rain, throwing everything into a few set pieces – including one where Slater's character nearly drowns as his jail cell floods – that would rival anything even in de Bont's original Speed movie. Much like Deep Rising, Hard Rain has more than a few wonky moments of early CGI, but Salomon is wise to keep his focus on jet ski chases and endless environmental water damage. If one could describe a movie as populated by 'foreboding boating,' then Hard Rain has it in spades.

But the success of Hard Rain as an action film is primarily credit to its writer. Graham Yost is known these days as the purveyor of high-concept genre television, but for a few glorious years in the 1990s – with movies like Speed, Broken Arrow, and Hard Rain – no writer got more mileage out of the "Die Hard on a [BLANK]" premise. Yost's scripts solidified Keanu Reeve's status as a Hollywood action star, gave us memorable villainous turns from the likes of Randy Quaid and John Travolta, and came close – so damned close – to turning Christian Slater into the '90s action star America deserved. With his signature emphasis on development through action – none of these three leads have a home life worth mentioning, and all three movies play out in something approximating real-time – Yost also wrote movies that aged surprisingly well as a result. Good action knows no decade.

It also has a penchant for double-crosses. In Speed, Dennis Hopper's character plays an Atlanta police officer who would rather turn terrorist than suffer through the meager pension afforded him by the state; both Broken Arrow and Hard Rain suffer similar defections, with John Travolta and Randy Quaid playing law enforcement officers who would rather pursue a payday than the protection of the local populace. Yost's films are clever enough to place each deception at a different time; in Speed, the subterfuge is revealed halfway through the movie, while Broken Arrow and Hard Rain reveal themselves near the beginning and the end of the movies, respectively. There's something decidedly fresh about movie villains whose only true motivation is greed; that was the twist that made Die Hard such an enduring success, and that's what Yost brings to his screenplays.

And while Hard Rain may not have risen to the heights of Yost's breakthrough screenplay – much like Deep Rising, Hard Rain lost a ton of money in theaters, grossing $19 million against a $70 million budget – the film stands out among its peers as a smart and competent little thriller. As mentioned before, Christian Slater was a perfectly serviceable leading man before he faded into obscurity for the first part of the decade; one could argue that little separates his well-meaning security guard in Hard Rain from Keanu Reeves's character in Speed. Hard Rain is also a welcome reminder of an underrated period in Morgan Freeman's career, where the actor played the sorts of characters, good and evil, typically found in the pages of New York Times best sellers. Clever, competent, and just a little dangerous, this Freeman would soon be replaced by the paternal and godlike Freeman that he could play in his sleep (but one we all still know and love). Throw in Minnie Driver in her second-best role post Good Will Hunting, and you have a trio of actors in fine form, with crackling dialogue and a steady hand at the wheel.

A Legacy of Jet Skis

Are any of this movies good? Sure! But are they important? Perhaps only to those indiscriminate studio fans like myself. It's worth noting that neither Deep Rising nor Hard Rain received much in the way of 20th anniversary recognition earlier this year, a kiss-of-death in an industry that often functions almost entirely on nostalgia. Bad, goofy, and slick, Speed 2, Deep Rising, and Hard Rain are perhaps more interesting in what they reveal about the industry than their own successes and failures as films. But in a filmmaking landscape where everything old is new again – where a filmmaker like Rob Cohen can get tens of millions of dollars to make Die Hard with a Twister twist – it's worth noting some of the silly action movies that help us measure the passage of time along the way. These may not be the best that Hollywood has ever offered us, but they all took their swings and they all had jet skis. Sometimes, that's enough.