Back in the Day: “Dead Calm” (APRIL ’89)
Sometimes, things just come together, like a perfect storm. Never really understood that, but it’s convenient at the moment. In April of ’89, that’s kind of what happened when three barely known but good-looking (aren’t they all?) actors joined a film written by a guy famous for those pulp fiction novels that featured well-drawn covers on which sultry women were wearing clothing that seemed ready to fall off, and you’ve got fun.
In Dead Calm, while sailing around together in order to reconnect after the death of their young son, Rae (Nicole Kidman) and John (Sam Neill) take aboard Hughie (Billy Zane), who shows up in a life raft and claims to be the sole survivor from a ship stricken with food poisoning. When John investigates what’s left of the ship, Hughie sails away with Rae and their yacht, unlike the sinking ship on which John is now trapped.
The only film of note for Kidman at that time was BMX Bandits. For Neill, Omen III: The Final Conflict, which was just a worn-out sequel. Good thing Hollywood stopped doing that. Zane had a bit part in Back to the Future I and II. Dead Calm, directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger), was their perfect storm that launched all – well, most of them – okay, it launched Kidman on a stellar career while Neill did a few good things and Zane went on to not be in Back to the Future III.
Dead Calm was actually a pretty good thriller born from an excellent short story written by a soldier in the middle of World War II. He wrote it simply as entertainment for his wife. She then submitted it to a magazine, got it published, and thus began Charles Williams went on to an excellent career of writing those dime-store novels I mentioned earlier. It’s a race against both time and stupidity as Neill is trapped in a sinking ship with a radio that sometimes works. Kidman is trapped on a good ship with a murderer who does too much talking and not enough time doing what you know he would have been doing if he were really a murderer and Kidman were really as hot as she really is. I mean, I’m not advocating violence, especially against women. I’m just saying that we all know what Zane really has in mind but never seems to get around to doing, but we know he would have done it in a minute given he’s a psychopath and she’s eventually going to somehow get tricked into marrying Tom Cruise. Do I have to say it out loud? Or in Times New Roman?
As I was saying, Dead Calm was really close to being a good thriller instead of just some Kidman lust, but then it ran into two Hollywood clichés, as described by Roger Ebert – “The Talking Killer” and “The Undead Dead.” Like a thousand movies before and after, there are moments when Kidman pulls a role-reversal on Killer Zane and has a chance to do away with him. Naturally, she spends too much time talking and not enough time surviving, which allows Zane to take charge again. Then, when we think she actually did kill him, he pulls a Glenn Close-Fatal Attraction and shows up again, only to be killed again. Oh, spoiler alert.
Dead Calm is neither dead nor calm, but – once it reached cable – it was a good enough film in the pre-internet porn era for a horny 16-year old who otherwise had to sneak an issue of Cosmopolitan from the the living room when nobody was looking. For the diet tips, of course.
The Good: Kidman wearing white on a boat
The Bad: Neill’s escape from the sinking ship
The Ugly: Hollywood Clichés