Sam Raimi's Crimewave, 31 years on

Sam Raimi's Crimewave, 31 years on

Crimewave painted movie poster

To live in a world where you know there's a film in existence that is directed by Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead), who co-wrote it with the Coen Brothers (Miller's Crossing, The Big Lebowski), that co-stars Brion James, Louise Lasser, Bruce Campbell and the big fella from Pieces and has enough Three Stooges style slapstick to satisfy any prat-fall hungry film viewer, but that the film itself isn't very good, is a particular kind of film-fandom-based torture.

I would, on this, the 31st anniversary of its tiny, tiny U.S. cinematic release, love to be able to, with hindsight, lavish praise on Crimewave. Luckily no one involved in the film needs me to because they have all gone on to bigger, brighter and better things. Still, it would be nice to have a more positive take on a film that, really, amounts to just an awful missed opportunity all round. 

For those who haven't seen it, it's a weird, zany, retro comedy/thriller with heavy Three Stooges influence. Imdb describes it like this:
A pair of whacked-out cartoon-like exterminator/hitmen kill the owner of a burglar-alarm company, and stalk the partner who hired them, his wife, and a nerd framed for the murder, who tells the story in flashback from the electric chair.
I copied that description from Imdb for 2 reasons:

  1. I couldn't explain this movie if I tried
  2. to show you that other people can't really explain this movie either!
Crimewave cast line up

I am just going to come out and say it: Being a Sam Raimi fan is a frustrating business. He is an exceptional, visionary director who has influenced a million and one professional and amateur filmmakers with his kinetic and inventive directing and sound design, and yet, outside of his Evil Dead Trilogy he hasn't, really, made a great movie. If we're being REALLY honest he's made way too few good movies, let alone great ones.

All of his films whiff of compromise and casting issues.

For example: There really isn't a single one of his films that wouldn't benefit from Bruce Campbell being much higher up the call sheet and given work he could sink his teeth into.
Crimewave - make him the lead.
Darkman - Neeson is fine but also stiff and awkward in a role so obviously made for Campbell.
The Quick and The Dead - I'd replace Russell Crowe with Bruce.
For The Love of The Game - Bruce should've told Raimi not to make it. 
The Gift - I'd replace Keanu Reeves or Greg Kinnear with Campbell.
Spider-Man - He should've been the Green Goblin.
Drag Me To Hell - Instead of the story of a young woman wanting a promotion, how about, old, fat, schlubby Bruce who has been passed over for promotion for years... a way more interesting story.

Bruce Campbell Renaldo Crimewave

The fans want the dark, twisted, cackling, slapstick goblin in the crumpled suit with the mischievous eyes who made The Evil Dead trilogy and Darkman but Raimi, himself, seemed to want to work with the studios and become a somewhat-tamed blockbuster director for hire. He went the way of his contemporary Tim Burton and while they got a bigger canvas and more gadgets to play with, undoubtedly amassed bigger audiences and, by extension, earned shed tons of sweaty cash, there's just something more fascinating, mad and authentic about a Terry Gilliam sort - defiantly trying to do what seems right and true to him, against all odds.

Crimewave prison pic 1

Anyway, all those issues - studio interference in editing and casting - that plagued Raimi through Darkman, The Quick and The Dead, right up to, and including, the infamous Spider-Man 3 debacle, all started with Crimewave.

The difference being that, while in those other instances I am inclined to side with Raimi, with Crimewave it is not just his, admitted, naivety to the studio way of making a movie that derails it but the lack of a strong idea, narrative or script. Weird considering who wrote it but I do place many of the problems with Crimewave at the feet of the script.

A madcap, comedy, mystery movie, or whatever Crimewave thinks it is, needs a simple premise to hang all its wacky madcappery on to. Look at The Evil Dead 1 & 2. You can go wild with that because it's a simple set-up, minimal characters and so we all know where we are and why when shit goes crazy. In Crimewave I honestly couldn't really tell you what's going on or why anyone is doing any of the things they're doing. Even The Tree Stooges took a recognisable premise and just riffed jokes off it. If no one knows where they are, then it's difficult to tie the 'untethered balloons in a high wind' that are the physical comedy routines in Crimewave to anything.

The last thing that really is a problem is the casting of Reed Birney. I am sorry but he is awful. The studio wanted him instead of Bruce Campbell. Admittedly Bruce Campbell had only done Evil Dead 1 at that point (that had made any impact) but old Reed Birney doesn't even have an Evil Dead on his resume before Crimewave, or anything that would make anyone in 1985 believe him to be better for a slapstick leading man part over Bruce "the King" Campbell.

It's just, with hindsight, it makes the movie a hard watch because:

  1. you just wish Bruce had played the part the whole time and
  2. the whole film is narrated, in flashback, by Reed on the electric chair so you spend most of the film wishing they'd hurry up and electrocute him!
Reed Birney - Crimewave

If you understand all of those negatives going in and add to it that the studio threw out Raimi's desired cast and re-edited the movie without him, then, believe it or not, there is much in Crimewave to enjoy!

Like a Roadrunner cartoon colliding with the Three Stooges in a montage from The Hudsucker Proxy, the movie is wonderfully wild and inventive. Technically it's also pretty impressive, especially as it's only his second movie. The many sight gags, mad set pieces and even the finale car chase - featuring "The Classic" Raimi's very own Delta 88 Oldsmobile - are pretty successfully pulled off on the budget and considering the on-set problems they were having with the cast and studio. 

Renaldo The Heel Bruce Campbell Crimewave

Although reduced to a smaller role, that of Renaldo The Heel, Bruce Campbell is amazing in the film. He has that spark and weird, hyper-smarmy delivery that made him utterly unique and spell-binding as an actor for a while. He is the Tex Avery whistling wolf made flesh and there should've been 15 movies about this incredible character. Sadly we barely get 15 minutes, still, each second is gold. 

 Also, did I mention? there are nuns... lots and lots of nuns...

Also, did I mention? there are nuns... lots and lots of nuns...

Basically, in conclusion, if you're wondering if you should watch it, you definitely should, once, maybe twice. If you've seen it and wondering if it's worth a revisit, I'd say, only if there is absolutely nothing left to re-watch.

It stands as one of the handful of films where Sam Raimi let his freak flag fly and experimented with a bunch of insane stuff. Sadly there are too few of those films in existence and so it is worth that, if nothing else. The man went legit too soon and I can't help but hope that his wilder ways gnaw at his gut now and then and, one day, we'll get one more incredible, wacky tour de force from one of the most inventive and influential people still in the film biz - with fucking Bruce Campbell in the damn lead!!

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