After making The Evil Dead Sam Raimi began to get some attention as an up-and-coming director. For his next project he became interested in a script he read by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, which was a slapstick comedy about bumbling hitmen and a nebbish hero. Initially Embassy Pictures had some faith in Raimi, thinking that the movie, called The XYZ Murders, and later Relentless, might have potential to for mainstream appeal and help pull the ailing movie studio out of its tailspin.
Crimewave, as Embassy retitled it when they released it to little promotion in Kansas and Alaska before dumping it on HBO in hopes that it would be a hit with the cable audience, didn't achieve what they hoped. After Raimi quickly went overbudget while filming in Detroit the studio execs stepped in, started looking over his shoulder and questioning everything he did. After the movie was completed they shelved it and then, after some time, released their own edit of the film, which failed to find an audience.
Vic Ajax (Reed Birney) is being dragged to the electric chair but continues to proclaim his innocence. While being prepared for execution he tells the story of how his boss, Ernest Trend (Edward R. Pressman), hired hit men to get rid of his partner Donald Odegard (Hamid Dana). The killers, strongman Faron (Paul L. Smith) and psychotic Arthur (Brion James), are none too careful with who they kill and, after botching the job, go on a rampage.
Ajax, at the urging of his boss, goes looking for love and finds Nancy (Sheree J. Wilson), who happens to be smitten with a sleazy playboy named Renaldo (Bruce Campbell). Despite initially being annoyed by Vic, Nancy soon warms up to him. Problem is, the killers, while pursuing Trend's wife Helene (Louise Lasser) to make sure there are no witnesses, kidnap Nancy. This forces Vic to become a hero, but he is blamed for Faron and Arthur's murders, with his only hope that Nancy, who has disappeared, can show up to vouch for him.
Sam Raimi has always been a fan of the Three Stooges, and that influenced much of the humor in Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. Crimewave is the only film that he made as a straight comedy and, while it has a number of weird aspects and some of the cartoonish violence that would be expected, it is a modern slapstick comedy. Much of the style is taken from the 1940s despite the setting being in the '80s and, even though such films as Airplane! were popular at the time, they were a different type of slapstick. There wasn't a big demand for this type of movie and Embassy soon realized that Raimi had delivered another cult film and not the big mainstream smash they had expected. There is frequent use of cartoon sound effects, and I am sure that many people who saw the film, with its weird mixture of mayhem and mirth, were confused about what it should be.
Although Reed Birney does a good job in the lead role it was originally meant for Bruce Campbell and, as would happen a number of times, the studio refused to allow Raimi to use Campbell as a lead. He still has a great role as Renaldo the Heel, but his absence in the lead isn't as noticeable as it could have been. That is because the most interesting characters are Faron and Arthur, the latter with a portable electrocution machine. Louise Lasser was supposedly a cocaine-addled mess, though her role as Helene allows her to hold her own against Faron. Sheree J. Wilson also shows some great comic timing in her role as Vic's reluctant love interest.
Although Raimi never got to film the Coens' script as he liked Crimewave is still quite entertaining and funny. It also has many of his signature directing techniques on display during the fight between Helene and Faron as well as in the climactic car chase. There is a lot to love in this movie and it is good that it is easier to find than it used to be. When I first saw it I had to hunt down a copy at a particular video store as almost no one carried it. Raimi may not be proud of it for various reasons but it still deserves a lot more attention than it gets.
Time: 86 minutes
Starring: Reed Birney, Sheree J. Wilson, Paul L. Smith, Brion James, Louise Lasser
Director: Sam Raimi