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.

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