It was only a matter of time before Sam Raimi's Crimewave was rousted out of the comfort of its own obscurity. Barely released and all but ignored, this collaboration between Sam Raimi, four years and zero prospects out from his original The Evil Dead, and Joel and Ethan Coen, fresh off their own debut with Blood Simple, Crimewave feels like a commingling of sensibilities that hadn't quite come to define themselves. Its dorky restaging of broad film-noir convention makes it feel like the libidinally excessive leftovers of Blood Simple, while its just as dorky hard-on for slapstick comedy and Tex Avery makes it feel like a dry run for Evil Dead 2. Somewhere in the middle, the film parades the protean DNA of A Simple Plan, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, Drag Me to Hell, Raising Arizona, and Spider-Man 2, all entwined in a nascent Raimi/Coen double helix.
Though pretty much all parties involved have since disowned the film, the differently realized fame of both Raimi and the Coens meant that Crimewave (long circulated on booted VHS tapes and DVD-Rs AS The XYZ Murders and, per an alternate credits sequence packaged with these discs, as Broken Hearts and Noses) could only stay a footnote for so long. So it's a good thing that Shout! Factory has dusted it off and prepped it for simultaneous DVD and Blu-ray release, accommodating its place within the formation of the respective Raimi/Coen canons. And as much as Crimewave seems to sit at the nexus of these two distinct, but sometimes overlapping, filmographies (what's A Simple Plan but Raimi's Fargo?), it also drifts outside of them. Well, not drifts, exactly. It bounces around, tautly wound like a Super Ball, bouncing off the walls of certain auteurist parameters, blasting through the windows of others.
Crimewave, first off, isn't a movie like other movies are movies. Its loosely Hitchcockian wrong-man plot—which has hapless security guard Victor (Reed Birney) embroiled in a corporate espionage and assignation plot—is just a pretense for a string of largely disconnected, archly cartoonish set pieces. (And, literally, its sets are revealed in one segment to be nothing more than pieces, as a burly hitman barrels through them like the false walls that they are.) “I don't claim to know a lot about the grand design,” Victor earnestly boasts to the film's put-upon femme fatale (Sheree J. Wilson). And the same could be said for Raimi. And the Coens. Characters are thinly sketched but fulsomely realized, from Birney's grinning dope to Bruce Campbell's smirking heel (“Oh the cab? You'll have to pay for it. I don't want to a break a hundred,” he tells a date) to Brion James and Paul Smith's Mutt and Jeff exterminators who specialize in “all sizes.” Formally, Crimewave's propulsive, infinitely pliable action crudely—but effectively—barrels from one scene to the next, like Daffy in Chuck Jones's Duck Amuck, barnstorming through the falsely erected folds of reality.
In one scene, an old lady accidentally lands in a box and is shipped off to Uruguay, for no other reason than “Uruguay” being a funny word. In another, an electric-chair execution is narrowly averted thanks to the intervention of a town car full of nuns. Producer/co-star Edward R. Pressman walks into a utility closet, announcing “Honey, I'm home!” A goofy reworking of Rossini's William Tell overture plays during a climatic freeway car chase through the crumbling Detroit that was Raimi, Campbell, and producer Robert Tapert's hometown. Crimewave is little more than a stitched-together set of gags, references, and non sequiturs. And its greatest strength is that it never pretends to be anything but. It's not so much pastiche as brazen, wide-eyed homage, blissfully unhip from stem to stern. It's little wonder the studio had no idea what to with it.
Given the film's legacy as, at best, a minor cult picture or, at worst, a piece of outright detritus, Crimewave arrives not much worse for the wear. Any outright damage to the film seems to have been plastered over (without any obvious digital correction), while the transfer still retains a slightly grainy, oversaturated VHS-like feel. The sound is similarly presentable, though also hemmed in by the constraints of the original film. Considering the overload of audio (dialogue, zany Three Stooges-esque sound effects, music, even a song-and-dance number), Crimewave's audio track is crisp, nicely balancing all of these elements.
Shout! Factory seems at times like a mandate-less Criterion Collection. They're as dedicated to the painstaking restoration and repackaging of their titles, regardless of whether their actual cult status may actually merit it. Like many of their recent high-def releases, Crimewave's status as a cult object is very minor, even considering the contemporary repute of the talent involved. But this BD/DVD package feels poised to change all that. The disc isn't loaded with extras, there likely being very little to load on, but Shout! nonetheless assembles a smattering of archival and newly commissioned material.
There's a trailer and alternative title sequence (when the film was titled Broken Hearts and Noses) and interviews with Reed Birney and the always chummy Bruce Campbell and producer Edward R. Pressman. Pressman's piece is particularly interesting, tracing his relationship with the trifecta of Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Robert Tapert; they met at the Sitges Film Festival, where Raimi and company were presenting The Evil Dead, and where Pressman's wife was appearing in the Roger Corman production Battle Truck. Campbell's commentary will delight anyone who enjoyed his autobio/DIY film-school reader If Chins Could Kill, as he provides all kinds of humorous insights into the film's shoestring production, like explaining how they executed a number of dangerous practical effects or how the product placement of a pack of Kool cigarettes meant not production money, but free cartons of smokes. He says, "What good is this, killing the crew for no good reason? For no money?"
Not overestimating the significance of Crimeave is tricky, capturing as it does so much of what makes Sam Raimi (and Joel and Ethan Coen) interesting filmmakers. But whether or not it's Important is largely immaterial. Beyond its wadding of auteurist interest, Crimewave is a singularly entertaining watch, a platform for its makers' most wildly unchecked, brazenly silly, excesses.