Forgotten Films: Crimewave

If there was an announcement made today that Sam Raimi was going to direct a movie from a screenplay written by The Coen Brothers (starring Bruce Campbell, no less), I don’t think there’s a film geek alive who wouldn’t lose their mind. Based on their impressive filmographies and the cult followings that both have amassed, a collaboration of this magnitude would be a cinematic event like no other. But what if I told you that such a movie already existed, and not only did it bomb at the box office, but still remains to this day, exceedingly hard to find on DVD?

Back at the beginning of their careers, Sam Raimi and The Coen Brothers were all a part of the same scene of up-and-coming Midwest filmmakers, and Joel Coen landed one of his first film gigs as assistant editor on The Evil Dead. A couple of years later, The Coen Brothers had written and directed their first film, Blood Simple, and Raimi was developing his next movie. He asked The Coens to write the script for him, and the result was Crimewave.

Originally titled The XYZ Murders, this was Raimi’s first time working with an actual studio, and it turned out to be a bit of a disaster. Raimi described it as the worst time of his life, and Bruce Campbell has not so fond memories of a miserable winter shoot in Detroit and all kinds of studio interference, as told in his book If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor:

“Crimewave was a lesson about abject failure — no matter how you slice it, the film was a dog, and everyone involved can pretty much line up and take forty whacks. As filmmakers, we failed to execute a misguided concept and our studio refused us the benefit of any doubt.”

The movie follows two psychotic hitmen who double as exterminators (played by Brion James and Paul Smith). They are hired by the co-owner of a security company to eliminate his partner, who is trying to sell the business behind his back to Renaldo aka “The Heel” (Bruce Campbell). Along the way a number of people accidentally cross paths with the hitmen, leading to a series of goofy chase scenes and cartoony murders, until they encounter a nerdy security technician (Reed Birney) who is trying to win the heart of a girl (Sheree J. Wilson).

Raimi is known for his love of The Three Stooges, but I have never seen it shine through quite like it does in Crimewave. The movie is filled with all kinds of weird slapstick moments and cartoon sound effects. There are plenty of POV shots and silly set pieces, culminating in a pretty epic high-speed three car chase sequence. Some of the stunts are impressive, while others are pretty campy and fake-looking.

This is Sam Raimi at his most hyper real, and I can see it turning off a lot of viewers. Anyone who disliked the dance scene in the jazz club from Spider-Man 3, for example, will probably hate this movie. I still had a lot of fun to watching all the camera tricks and the hammy performances from Bruce Campbell et al, however the movie itself is very nearly incoherent.

It’s hard to say how much influence The Coen Brothers actually had on this movie. Their quirky sense of humour seems to permeate some of the proceedings, although the dialogue itself is certainly not on the same level of cleverness that they are known for today. The Coens would go on to direct Hudsucker Proxy afterward, which Sam Raimi co-wrote and Bruce Campbell starred in (incidentally, Crimewave also has a prison in it called “Hudsucker Penitentiary”). Raimi would return to his independent roots to shoot Evil Dead 2.

I can certainly understand why Crimewave has been sort of abandoned, and left hidden from the public eye. It’s not a particularly brilliant movie, and it’s easily one of the weakest projects that any of these great filmmakers have been involved in. I can also understand why the studio execs might have been a little bit unhappy with the final product, especially considering that it went over budget (the Columbia Pictures logo at the start of the film seems very out of place). Still, this is a movie that will certainly be of interest to hardcore Sam Raimi fans, and it has its share of fun moments. If you can get your hands on a copy without paying through the nose, I’d still recommend giving it a chance.

  • ProjectGenesis

    I’ve always wanted to see this. Where did you find a copy?

  • swarez

    You can get a really nice DVD in the UK as well.

  • Ian

    Cool thanks for writing this column Sean I’m always looking for a few good movies I don’t know about. Usually they are unknown for a reason but every now and again they are something I enjoy.

  • Wes

    This one certainly slipped by under the radar!

  • um…I never forgot about crimewave…

  • This was one of those VHS views in the late 1980s. Can’t say I remember much of it though. Gotta say, i dig just about anything with Brion James in it though. Great character actor.

  • Jason

    DUDE! Haha! I remember this movie! What a coincidence, too…I just rented this from Netflix the other week. Unfortunately, the version they sent was a horrible Asian transfer, but better than nothing. IMO Bruce Campbell was the highlight of the film, but the guy that played the hero – not so much.