It's a wonder they didn't all catch pneumonia. Or drown.
The surface of this crime-thriller/disaster flick is commonplace enough. Jim, Freeman's career thief (I guess that's what he is; the character's pretty sketchy), apparently plans one last job when he learns the rains are coming. Once homey little Huntingburg, Indiana -- all church steeples and town-square statues of soldiers on horses -- is evacuated because the river's rising and the dam's about to burst, Jim and his none-too-expert gang will hijack the cash from the marooned truck, already up to its pedals in water, without much interference from anyone.
What they don't figure on, of course, is the resistance of Slater's Tom, sitting in the passenger seat. Before the thieves can overwhelm him, he stashes the cash in a nearby mausoleum and the soggy action-chase is on. Boats and jet skis careen down the flooded corridors of Huntingburg Middle School. An exploding power transformer electrocutes a drenched henchman. Good guys and bad guys blast speedboats through stained-glass windows. There are shootouts in floating houses, inundated graveyards and the flooded vault of the church. Surprisingly, no one's powder seems to get wet. And all of this murky, muddy, storm-tossed action takes place at night, which juices up the thrill.
That's the reasonably exciting surface of Hard Rain. It befits both director Mikael Salomon, who did special effects on Backdraft and cinematography on The Abyss, and writer Graham Yost, who previously dreamed up the frantic screenplays for Speed and Broken Arrow.
Intended, half-intended or accidental, there's also something rather peculiar going on below the surface of this workaday actioner -- something unsettling and far more interesting than the crashes and blastings. It's the movie's profoundly cynical view of American small-town life -- something akin to The Simpsons with actual gunfire.
The waters have barely reached the door handles of the armored car before we learn that Tom's driving partner, who's also his good old Uncle Charlie (Ed Asner), is in on the heist. Three more inches of flooding and we learn that another of the conspirators is the science teacher from the local high school. A third one spouts Bible verses. Don't even ask about law enforcement. Inevitably, all that money is bound to turn the head of somebody wearing a badge. Through the raindrops, you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys.
In other words, as the water rises and the dam bursts, it's not just abandoned Huntingburg (consider the name for a second) that's annihilated. It's also the entire catalog of rock-ribbed, squeaky-clean, small-town verities that Hollywood has been blithely merchandising since the days of Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra.
The movies have discovered traces of evil in other Everytowns, of course -- consider the works of Mr. Hitchcock, or the killer children spawned by The Bad Seed. But Salomon and Yost combine here to become something like the Anti-Capra. Huntingburg's very church is destroyed by fire and flood -- scratch another trusted institution -- and after it happens, the hero kind of chuckles about it. Faced with temptation, the town cops run amuck. In the flooded cemetery, the dislodged coffins of dead citizens even come floating to the surface, as if to announce that there's no rest for the righteous -- not in this world.
Here's the stuff of low-budget horror fused to a disaster movie that's dolled up as a crime thriller and turns out to be a cautionary tale. The cumulative effect of all these jangled genres is far more chilling than the storm. We've broken loose from our moral and social moorings, Hard Rain tells us. It's not the first time we've heard it, but come on: Your bespectacled, cornball science teacher as a party to grand larceny and multiple murder?
Whether the moviemakers are being sly or careless -- it's hard to tell -- they've pulled off a neat trick. They've managed to disturb old articles of faith while our guard is down, while we're busy watching the boats crash and the rain fall. And the obligatory happy ending -- hero and heroine saved -- does very little to diminish the impact.
Wear galoshes, and have a look beneath the surface.
Directed by Mikael Salomon. With Christian Slater, Morgan Freeman, Randy Quaid and Minnie Driver.