Hard Rain doesn't display a lot of belief in human consistency. In this exceedingly odd little picture, responsible characters are suddenly corrupted into greedy, murderous marauders. People who seem like the salt of the earth are revealed to have been schemers all along. One fellow picks just about the least convenient moment imaginable to become a rapist. Even more peculiar is the reverse--characters are set up to look, at first, like cool, professional supervillains, but eventually they begin to seem amateurs, weekend-warrior heavies who've watched too many action movies. They may even have hearts.

The setting is the town of Huntingburg, probably in the Midwest, that's downstream from an old dam during a, well, hard rain. The hero, played by Christian Slater, is an armored-truck guard. In the midst of the rising damp, he and his partner (Ed Asner) run afoul of an armed band of good old-fashioned highwaymen, led by Morgan Freeman. Slater manages to escape alone with the loot, and to stash it so that if the brigands catch up with him, they won't want to kill him.

The rest of this silly but funny and bracingly unpredictable noir disaster movie is an ever more waterlogged game of cat-and-mouse throughout the town. Before long, the handful of townies who didn't evacuate is caught up in it as well. The sheriff (Randy Quaid) and his deputies and other cronies, a henpecked guy (Richard Dysart) and the hen (Betty White), and a young woman (Minnie Driver) who is restoring the stained glass in a local church all end up on one side or the other--or both sides--of the conflict.

The script was concocted by Graham Yost, who also wrote 1994's Speed, and, like that movie, it operates on a dynamic that seems almost allegorical. Speed, set aboard an L.A. city bus rigged to go kaboom if its speedometer fell below 50 miles per hour, was about the demand of modern life simply to keep it moving, not to slow down. Within the context of constant motion, there may be room to improvise, take detours, even make mistakes, but if you slacken your pace, you've had it.

With Hard Rain, Yost has, consciously or not, added another layer to the allegory--the faster you need to run, the more bogged down you get. And, as in a dream, your opponents have speedboats; they're fully mobile.

As authentic a sensation as this is, however, it doesn't play as excitingly as the need to keep the bus moving. Speed was near-perfect action entertainment. Even the bad acting of Keanu Reeves, so excruciating to watch in most circumstances, somehow fit--he just seemed guileless and sweet, instead of glib and wisecrackingly macho. The film's only serious misstep was that one-climax-too-many in the subway at the end.

Because the plot is so discursive and the characters so mercurial, director Mikael Salomon isn't able to work up enough steam to give Hard Rain even one climax. In the last quarter of the film, speedboats hurtle around, gunfire and explosions are exchanged, but it's all pretty much a muddle. It doesn't have the focus or the urgent tempo to move us toward the edge of our seats.

Luckily, the movie is able to coast on the performances. Slater's everyman-hero, complaining bitterly about his polyester uniform and "three-figure salary," is sympathetic, especially to those of us who have done time in the security field. He has a nice rapport with Driver--their appealing, handsome-homely faces seem right together. They're the two characters whose steadfastness we're fairly sure of, and they manage to put over the idea that the bond that forms between them isn't only because of the crisis. They're kindred spirits, virtuous but also wry.

Quaid, Asner, White, Dysart and Dann Florek all get some drollery into their roles. Freeman gives an effortless, subtly witty performance, and it's great to have him around, but can't somebody find something better for this truly great actor to do?

Earlier I referred to Hard Rain as an "odd little picture," even though it's not little at all in visual terms--it's produced on a large scale, with elaborate special effects and epic scenes of destruction. Yet it feels small--intimate and idiosyncratic--and this is what makes it amusing. It's a disaster movie with no screaming, panicked crowds. It's an action movie in which the hero is a fed-up security guard rather than an obsessed and righteous cop. It's about people without enough sense to come in out of the rain.

Hard Rain
Directed by Mikael Salomon; with Christian Slater and Morgan Freeman.


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