hard rain

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.

Continue Reading Jet Skis and Shootouts: The Waterlogged Action Cinema of the ’90s >>

Pages: 1 2Next page

Cool Posts From Around the Web: