Revisiting Coen Brothers & Sam Raimi’s Flop ‘Crimewave’ 30 Years Later
This year’s Oscars saw the Coen Brothers receive their sixth screenwriting nomination for Bridge of Spies. It was a solid effort, mostly remarkable for being the first time in 30 years that someone else has directed one of their works and it not being a major letdown. But then again, Spielberg could turn just about anything into a Best Picture contender by his reputation alone.
The first attempt by the Coen Brothers handling just the screenplay credits was for Sam Raimi’s 1985 film Crimewave, which limped out on a limited release 30 years ago. Critics were not impressed. Vincent Canby of the New York Times tried to be nice, but couldn’t help noting that it was “not funny” and “dimly humorless”—and no-one went to see it. The film made just over $5,000 against its modest $2.5 million budget. (For comparison, the highest grossing film of 1986, Top Gun, made around $386 million versus a $15 million budget).
So now that Crimewave is three decades old, how does it stand up over time? I approached Crimewave aware of its reputation but hoping that it would play better now that we’re attuned to the Coen’s sense of humour. Unfortunately, it hasn’t aged well. All early Raimi movies have the same cartoony aesthetic, but Crimewave looks particularly cheesy, as if shot on left over sets from Police Squad. It has received some retrospective turd-polishing in certain circles—Slant Magazine awarded it four out of five stars, the same rating they gave The Big Lebowski.
Back in 1985, Crimewave must have sounded like a good idea at the time. Raimi was still hot after his debut (now cult classic) The Evil Dead, and Blood Simple announced the Coen’s as a remarkably precocious writing-producing-directing duo. Sometimes match-ups that look good on paper turn out to be stinkers—see the putrid chemistry vacuum of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in The Tourist.
Raimi’s hyperactive visual style would seem a great match for the Coen’s stylized dialogue, and some of the former’s directorial pizzazz bled over into the Coen’s earlier work. Yet the combination also failed in the Coen’s highest profile flop, The Hudsucker Proxy, where Raimi co-wrote and served as Second Unit Director. Tellingly, the Coen’s were working on the script for Hudsucker while Crimewave was in production, and both films share DNA with Raising Arizona at the zanier end of the Coen’s screenwriting spectrum. All three are postmodern spins on old Hollywood movies of the ’30s and ’40s that the Brothers love so much.
Crimewave starts well enough. Like Hudsucker, we meet our protagonist just as he is apparently about to meet his demise—Victor Ajax (Reed Birney) is a typical Coen-esque schlub dragged from his cell for a midnight date with the electric chair. Meanwhile, a carload of nuns race through the silent city streets to the rescue. Via flashback, we find out what led Victor to his perilous state. Ajax was once a regular joe installing security cameras for the Trend-Odegard security company. One partner—Mr. Trend—employs some repulsive contract killers to whack the other, Mr. Odegard. Through a series of woefully unfunny scenes Ajax falls in love with a femme fatale, butts heads with his love rival Renaldo (Bruce Campbell, a frequent Raimi associate), and ends up taking the fall for a series of murders committed by the unhinged exterminators.
Coen aficionados should enjoy some of the characters in Crimewave. The hitmen are the first in a series of big man-little man combos that would serve them so well, from John Goodman and William Forsythe in Raising Arizona to Goodman and Steve Buscemi in The Big Lebowski. This links in with a less appealing Coen trope, that of fat men screaming, hollering and shouting, which they like to work into any movie when they get the chance.
Otherwise, it’s a pretty juvenile and ugly exercise, and the pace of the film suffers from the studio’s intervention. Raimi was denied the final cut, and the editing is at odds with the director’s usual dynamism—even at a trim 83 minutes it plods terribly. Scenes drag on forever because the editing is so slack, exposing the weakness of the script. The screenplay is the real villain of the piece, with barely enough dialogue to get the characters from point A to B in a scene. It feels like a rough draft dashed off to set up the story’s structure, and got made into a movie by accident before the Coen’s could revise.
If it played faster they might have gotten away with the “jokes”, which are about as sophisticated as Stan and Ollie getting their hats mixed up. An example is a character walking into a broom closet instead of his apartment…that’s it, that’s the joke. These gags have whiskers on them, as someone in Hudsucker might say.
The only truly enjoyable part of the film is Bruce Campbell, making the most of slim pickings. Campbell was still a few years away from becoming a B-movie idol, but delivers the lines with his typical cult hero drollery. Raimi wanted Campbell for the lead, but the studio insisted on someone more “Hollywood”, resulting in the baffling casting of Birney as Ajax. He’s a completely insipid screen presence and the action grinds even further to a halt as he bumbles through his scenes. It’s the film equivalent of watching a stand up act die onstage.
After Crimewave flopped, Raimi retreated to his cabin in the woods to create Evil Dead II, one of the greatest sequels of all time. He would pare back his Loony Toon instincts to make his best film to date, A Simple Plan, and also helm one of the most emotionally satisfying superhero adaptations, Spiderman 2. Of course, the Coen’s career as filmmakers grew immensely over time, though it’s fascinating how they stuck to their guns with the same vein of wackiness in their next feature, Raising Arizona.
Crimewave is perhaps best remembered as a cautionary tale, carrying the whiff of hubris from three young filmmakers who perhaps felt they were too cool to fail. Careers have been ruined by less, and we can be thankful that Raimi and the Coen’s managed to survive after the unwatchable mess of this collaboration.