Judge Patrick Bromley thinks this wave is more of a treacle.
Extermination is not just a business. It's a way of life.
The 1986 black comedy Crimewave, directed by Sam Raimi and written by Joel and Ethan Coen, should be one of the best things ever. With a pairing like that, what could go wrong? Turns out a lot. Never before released on disc, the bastard child of Raimi's filmography finally arrives on a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack courtesy of the Shout! Factory, the patron saints of home media.
The film was originally supposed to star Bruce Campbell, who wasn't approved by the studio and was instead replaced by meek Reed Birney (Morning Glory) as Victor, a man awaiting execution in the electric chair after being wrongly accused of murder. To hopefully save his own life, he tells the story of how he got there: when his boss at the security company at which he works discovers that his partner is planning to sell (to a smooth talker played by Bruce Campbell, Burn Notice), he hires two exterminators (Brion James, Blade Runner; and Paul L. Smith, Popeye), to knock him off and eliminate the problem. While Victor is installing security cameras inside of an apartment complex and chatting up the girl of his dreams (Sheree J. Wilson, Walker, Texas Ranger), the killers start working their way through the building. It's only a matter of time before they get to Victor and Nancy…
First things first: there is a lot of Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers on display in Crimewave; the trio would later collaborate much more successfully on The Hudsucker Proxy (there's even a Hudsucker reference in Crimewave). The Coen's penchant for period and Raimi's love of slapstick and cartoonish sight gags are all in full force. So that's good. But the tone is wrong—hard to imagine a Sam Raimi movie that goes too far over the top, but here it is—and the narrative is essentially incoherent. There are sketches of the kinds of memorable, colorful characters that the Coens are so good at creating, but that's all they are: sketches. Broadly drawn, impossible to care about sketches.
It's also impossible to know just how much blame should be laid at Sam Raimi's feet. There's no question that he got in over his head; after the totally do-it-yourself approach to filmmaking of The Evil Dead, Raimi was unprepared for the demands and compromises of making a movie for a studio. But the film was also essentially taken away from him, recut by editors not of his choosing and given a new, obnoxious score. So when I want to accuse Crimewave of being frantic to the point of being obnoxious, or overly busy or not making much sense, I don't know where to point the finger. Maybe those things were always problems. Maybe it's a function of Raimi being locked out of the editing room. Whatever the case, the result is a movie that's very difficult to connect with.
The good news is that we're getting Crimewave on DVD and Blu-ray at all. It goes without saying at this point that Shout! Factory is the best, and while the movie isn't great there is a clear attempt not so much at rewriting its reputation as much as rescuing it from obscurity as a piece of the filmographies from some of our most talented and successful directors. Crimewave isn't a good movie, but it's a fascinating historical document. The 1.78:1 transfer gets a full 1080p facelift and looks good overall; though the clarity can be inconsistent, most shots get by without looking too terribly soft. Colors are a little washed out, too, but it's important to remember that we're getting the film on high-def at all and can finally retire the old VHS tapes. The two-channel DTS-HD audio track is really just a mono track coming through two speakers; it gets the job done, but lacks any texture or dimensionality.
As frustrating as Crimewave is, the bonus features on Shout! Factory's Blu-ray of the movie help put everything into context and provide most of the reason for owning the disc. Bruce Campbell's commentary track (alongside DVD producer Bruce Felsher) is a revealing look at everything that went wrong, from the cluelessness of Raimi and company to studio interference. He's candid without coming off as bitter, and tempers everything with his trademark gusto and humor. It's unfortunate that Raimi isn't on hand to talk about the movie, there's basically no chance that he's interested in talking about the movie or in helping a studio sell copies of it, so having Bruce there to discuss it is the next best thing. He also sits down for an interview which covers some of the same ground, but it's interesting and informative nonetheless—together, the two extras function as a document as to just how many talented people could collaborate on something that missed by so wide a margin. Also interviewed for the disc is the movie's star, Reed Birney, who has a good attitude about the experience despite the fact that he's now known as "the guy who was supposed to be Bruce Campbell." Producer Edward Pressman, who has a role in the movie, offers a few comments about the film as well. There's also an alternate title sequence from when the film was called Broken Hearts and Noses, just one of the many titles under which the movie was shot (all of which Campbell details on his commentary). Lastly, there's the original trailer and a standard definition DVD copy of the movie.
Luckily, Sam Raimi's career recovered after the mess that is Crimewave. He bounced back by returning to the well and outdoing himself with Evil Dead II, a movie that reminded us of the director's brilliance. He's been on (mostly) a roll ever since, making Crimewave a blight that he's basically disowned. It doesn't work as a movie—for which Raimi can only be partially blamed—but it made for an important lesson for Raimi and company. If its failure is what led to the Sam Raimi that followed, it was all worth it.
A bad movie is nearly redeemed by the bonus features. For Raimi completists only.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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