When Sam Raimi's no-budget horror debut The Evil Dead became an instant cult hit when it finally found a distributor, the studios naturally came calling. After all, if this guy could make such a splash with a $375,000 schlock movie, imagine what he could do with a real budget and wide distribution. So, Raimi received $3 million to make his proposed gangster comedy, Crimewave, a pastiche of Golden Age noir and Three Stooges gags. Enlisting the help of his old friends the Coen brothers, who were themselves fresh off their acclaimed debut Blood Simple, Raimi seemed poised to bring the indie ethos to Hollywood and possibly even change the system.
Then the filmmakers learned a hard lesson about studio involvement. Raimi, Bruce Campbell, Evil Dead co-producer Ron Talpert and the Coens worked in the independent film, particularly the Evil Dead people, who raised their money through dentists and vendors. Now someone was on-set, reminding them that their budget did not take into account union fees and that some scenes needed to look bigger. Sadly, this effectively castrated both Raimi and the Coens, making Crimewave seem more like a self-parody of both camps before they'd even established themselves.
The film concerns Victor Ajax (Reed Birney, forced on the filmmakers when the studio refused Campbell the part), a technician for the Trend-Odegard Security. He's on the way to the electric chair at the beginning for a crime he claims he didn't commit, and we then cut to flashbacks of his story.
The crimes in question -- a string of murders -- were committed by a group of hitmen posing as, appropriately enough, exterminators of "all sizes." Mr. Trend hires them to kill his partner when he catches Odegard planning to sell the company to an oily huckster named "Renaldo the Hell" (Bruce Campbell). In true Coens fashion, this simple crime goes terribly awry when they accidentally kill Trend as well and someone witnesses the murder. Victor doesn't know about all this, as he is too busy attempting to woo his perfect woman, Nancy (Sheree J. Wilson), who cares little for Vic but desires the dismissive Renaldo.
The Three Stooges have played an active role in Raimi's writing throughout his career, but never has it been so pronounced (or so poorly integrated). The director utilizes the tricks that made The Evil Dead so inventive -- the cheap rigs that allow doors to pop open and slam closed by themselves, zooming close-ups -- are on display, but they're made to emphasize a physical gag or beyond-hammy acting. The actors all laugh in overblown manners, and any time someone is hit or falls down it's accompanied by a silly sound effect. Not a single line passes without a sight gag, hammy dialogue or a pratfall, and it makes everything simply too referential and parodic and it robs the action scenes of any power. Occasionally it works, such as the scene where Mrs. Trend drops a potted plant to alert help, only for Faron to catch it, and then only for the pot to fall off the grasped plant, but for the most part it simply falls flat.
I realize that the dialogue is supposed to be cheesy and it's supposed to play up the stilted absurdity of so many noir pictures, but it just gets old after a while. Only Campbell pulls it off well, because the man was born to be ridiculous. He's not just hammy like everyone else; he calls to mind the acting style of the '30s and '40s. He's perfect for the role, which was heavily expanded when producers refused to let Campbell play the lead, and he makes you wish that someone in charge had the foresight to recognize his talent. Also worth mentioning is Paul L. Smith as Faron, who doesn't pull of the annoying laugh but makes up for it with a deep growl that actually inspires some chills here and there.
There's really not much to say about this film. Both Raimi and the Coens draw inspiration from classic trash, be it horror flicks (Raimi) or pulp noir (the Coen brothers), but here it's just too broad and too poorly married to the action. The two groups would collaborate again on the Coens' maligned The Hudsucker Proxy, which also worked as a pastiche of old noir but had the wit and acting talent behind it to make it work even if it isn't top-tier Coens. It's strange to watch this mostly unfunny film, one that contains only traces of the Coens' and Raimi's strength, and realize that the Coens would next make Raising Arizona and Raimi Evil Dead 2, two of the funniest movies of the last 25 years. All of this makes Crimewave a curiosity for Raimi and Coens die-hards over anything overly entertaining, and it ranks as one of the weakest efforts from either party.
-camera movement actually looks less refined that his debut