Here's the thing to remember about "Hard Rain": It's not about a flood.
At least that's what the team responsible for this latest bad-weather thriller wants you to believe.
"One of the things that attracted me to 'Hard Rain' is that it wasn't about a disaster," the director, Mikael Salomon, says in the film's production notes. "The flood isn't really the salient part of the story," says star Morgan Freeman. "It's not about a flood," insists co-star Minnie Driver.
Yeah, right, whatever. The party line notwithstanding, as "Hard Rain" opens, the waters are already on the rise in the Mississippi River town of Huntingburg, Ind. Having been here and done that before, the townspeople go about coping with the storm with bitter, almost bored experience: Some pack up the cars and go to higher ground; others stand their rapidly dissolving ground. While evacuating the town, the lame-duck sheriff (Randy Quaid) takes good-natured guff from the idiotic mayor and unsuccessfully tries to talk an elderly couple out of setting bear traps for looters.
Meanwhile, down the road apiece, Tom and his Uncle Charlie (Christian Slater and Ed "I Hate Spunk" Asner), two armored car drivers, go about their business, loading $3 million into their truck amid pounding, pelting and rapidly accumulating rain. We're talking an Old Testament-size storm here. But all these two talk about are doughnuts and daydreams.
When the truck hits a patch of deep water, Charlie's call for help is intercepted by a band of thieves led by Jim (Morgan Freeman), a modern-day cowboy who wears a crucifix dangling from his right ear. But Jim's plans for the heist go awry when Tom makes off with the money. The chase ensues as the waters continue to engulf tiny Huntingburg, with boat chases and jet-ski high jinks that make this look like the movie "Speed 2" thought it was. Oh, yeah, but "Hard Rain" is not about a flood.
Then what is "Hard Rain" about? It might be about how Slater, who co-produced, has squandered early promise, having become an actor devoid of any charm, expression or impact on the screen. It might be about what a commanding presence Morgan Freeman is and what a stylish figure he cuts in his J. Peterman-like duster and cowboy hat. No matter how unredeemable the projects he appears in, "Seven" and "Kiss the Girls" being two recent examples, Freeman transcends all manner of dross to become a genuinely sympathetic leading man.
What we know "Hard Rain" isn't about is intelligent action or taut suspense. Filmgoers will see plot twists floating down Main Street and laugh out loud at some of the more preposterous moments, when Slater slogs through a half-submerged house to find a saw. Anyone desperate to see a young person manacled to a pole while waters rise around him may just want to hie on over to "Titanic."
Thankfully, the filmmakers exploit Freeman's personality by giving Jim his fair share of ambiguity by the end of a story that features precious little ambiguity. Betty White, as the town shrew who ultimately drives her husband up a tree, provides some tart comic relief.
Minnie Driver, as a holdout who refuses to leave the church she's restoring, provides a good object lesson in why no girl should be without her Swiss army knife.
To his credit, Salomon, a former cinematographer who cut his teeth filming "The Abyss" and "Backdraft," films the rainstorm so competently the filmgoers who survive it will surely feel wrung out from the experience. Funny how a movie that isn't about a flood can leave you feeling so waterlogged.
Starring Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Randy Quaid
Directed by Mikael Salomon
Released by Paramount Pictures
Rated R (violence)
Sun Score: **
Pub Date: 1/16/98