As Jack Handey put it, "It takes a big man to laugh at himself, but it takes an even bigger man to laugh at that man." Crimewave is about that big kind of man, and his partner: two electrocutioners on a rampage. They prowl the streets in a truck with a hog-sized stuffed rat on top, with red light bulb eyes. The driver is Faron Crush, who looks like Paul Sorvino playing the Incredible Hulk. HIs sniggering partner Arthur (Brion "I'll tell you about my mother" James) wears a jumpsuit, fingerless leather gloves, and a flat leather cap the shape and color of a cow-chip. If you ever had a nightmare about Gallagher, that's what Arthur looks like. The two maniacs carry with them "a shocker," a killing-machine that has three settings: "Rat," "Man" and "Hero". And they have no motivation beside malice and sheer professionalism.

Crimewave is a collaboration between director Sam Raimi (Spider-Man 3) and his co-writers Joel and Ethan Coen. Convicted mass murderer and all-around chump Victor Ajax (the Jon Hederish Reed Birney) is getting ready for his date with the Hot Squat at Hudsucker State Prison. It's almost midnight, and the warden and the witnesses can't wait for the high-voltage show to start. Meanwhile, a car loaded with 6 nuns race toward the prison, trying to get there before the Angel of Death arrives. Prissily explaining himself to the guards, Victor recounts the sequence of events that led him to death row.

He was a dolt working for a pair of feuding home security company co-owners, little knowing that one was planning to murder the other. The silent partner in profit was a businessman seeking to turn the storefront into a girlie bar; Roberto, aka The Heel, is played by the sublime Bruce Campbell. Roberto's new girlfriend Nancy (Sheree J. Wilson, later Chuck Norris' squeeze on Walker, Texas Ranger) has had about enough of Roberto's sleazy flirting. ("What say we go drown a couple of olives?" is his idea of a pickup line). Victor, who longs for Nancy, and proves it by looking deep into her eyes and reciting the lyrics of "Cherish," thinks he can catch her on the rebound.

Meanwhile, the Center City Exterminators (their motto: "We Kill All Sizes") arrive and carry out the shocking hit. Unfortunately, they're witnessed, first by the man who hired them, and then by his wife (Louise Lasser, the most serious person in the film). She Rear Windows the killers through a pair of binoculars. What follows is like the process of a group of falling dominoes, with new witnesses replacing old ones, and all falling to the brute strength of Faron or the electrodes of Arthur. Toughening up at last, Vic chases the killers down on a long freeway chase, capped by a automobile bumper and guard-rail fight on a bridge over an icy river.

It's easy to trace influences in this Stooges-Hitchcock mash up, a live-action cartoon made years before we became so accustomed to the genre. What struck fans back then were sheer ambition and the nerve of these small-scale filmmakers. Take that one dolly shot that pierces through the lens of a pair of binoculars to focus on a street corner below...or the moment where the camera zooms into the mouth of a screaming victim and zooms out of the bell of a trombone at a nearby nightclub.

Raimi and the Coens developed careful bits of macabre comedy, like a scene of a potted plant dropped off a balcony, caught by Faron before it can alert help...but then the terra cotta pot slips off the plant itself. The gags in the car chase finale are a credit to the spirit of Harold Lloyd, even if the rear projection looks a little tatty. I think I lost my interest in car chase scenes after they stopped using those over sized Detroit behemoths in them. And one of the most characteristic Stooges gags is reused by Raimi, who started out his film making career with shot-by-shot remakes of the Stooges shorts: slammed against a wall, Faron is pummeled by three separate bowling balls which had been placed daintily up on a high shelf for safe-keeping.

Raimi has disowned Crimewave. '"They screamed for their money back," Raimi said on Jonathan Ross's Incredibly Strange Film Show (here excerpted on YouTube). Geeky critics still bring up the early film to Raimi; did it once myself, actually. The trio of Three Stooges loving filmmakers from Detroit were the underdogs on this shoot, with the producers cracking the whip. Actor Paul L. Smith (who plays Faron Crush) played Bluto in Altman's Popeye, and he had no trouble with his growl there. Strange, then, that this man-mountain former philosophy major from Brandeis is dubbed with a hoarse comedy dialect, more like Bill Cosby's Fat Albert than anything else. (The lines are still good: cornering a victim, he broadcasts a message into her security camera: "Woman found torn limb from limb in Westside apartment. Film at eleven.")

I remember Raimi particularly complaining about Arlon Ober's soundtrack . The wah-wah-wah trombones and clarinets make the cartoonishness a little too meta for even a meta-cartoon. Some intriguing scenes are spoiled by musical editorializing. The music even plays over a scene that should have been played as ominously as possible: an old gapper in an elevator predicting a wrath-of-God electrical storm to come, because he can feel the electricity in the steel plate in his head. Freeze frame on that old man: he's Emil Sitka, a long time co-star to Larry, Moe and Curly, the Raimi and the Coens holy trinity. In fact, there's a photo of Sitka, in a proposed Stooges line up of Moe and "Curly Joe" di Rita after Larry Fine fell victim to a stroke. There Sitka stands, then, the last of the Third Stooges. There wasn't anything inherently funny about Sitka, who played gimpy straight men and judges against the Stooge. But he has that particular pathos you find in an aged and infirm comedian.

The Coen Brothers have a distant echo in Crimewave in No Country For Old Men. Here's another story of an unstoppable psycho with his own baroque killing machine, looming against a stylized backdrop, just like this one. On one level, the only difference between the two films is the number of killers and the matter of Oscar prestige. While I certainly won't give Crimewave the prize for depth, I've seen it many times, and I could only sit through No Country... once. When it comes to stories that delineate a cruel mindless universe, in which the only certainty is pain, I have always preferred the Three Stooges to Cormac McCarthy.
categories Features, Cinematical