[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
“I’ve been waiting all my life to fuck up like this.” That’s the closest we ever get to the motivation of Vietnam War correspondent John (Michael Moriarty), who suddenly, unaccountably decides to buy two kilos of uncut heroin to smuggle from Saigon back to California, there to sell it at enormous profit. By the time his wife Marge (Tuesday Weld) and his old Marine Corps buddy Ray (Nick Nolte, who with a performance like this under his belt is to be completely and unconditionally forgiven for The Deep) are menaced very nearly to death by the mob (or are they the cops? or are they the mob after all?), it’s too late for John to change what he has got them all into. “I can’t believe I’ve done this,” he tells his bookseller father-in-law (a feisty David Opatoshu), who jejunely replies, “A sense of unreality is no defense.”
A sense of unreality threads itself through this entire gem of a movie, the most enthralling film I’ve ever seen about drug traffic, precisely because it is about so much more than drug traffic. Who’ll Stop the Rain? is distinctly a mixed-genre film, combining action-suspense-drama with mystery, chase, and moral allegory: a film at once wildly violent and rigidly moral, owing much to The Wild Bunch and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. As a study of the impact of the Vietnam War on the American consciousness, this film is so much more honest in its treatment of character and milieu than Coming Home that the two films might be about completely different subjects. They aren’t, though Reisz’s eye—and conscience—are far less compromising than those of Ashby. In his first film since The Gambler, and possibly the best film of his career, Reisz discovers a grasping, dog-eat-dog world in post Vietnam America. His jaundiced eye records in oppressive, brown exteriors, closet-dark interiors, and real night-for-night photography a netherworld in which everyone gets high on something, just to keep going, no matter how absurd the goal. Heroin, speed, cigarettes, candy, violence, coke, asthma inhalers—everyone in Who’ll Stop the Rain? has some kind of monkey on his back, the crutches of a morally crippled world.
One man—as unlikely an idealist as any I’ve seen onscreen, even in a Reisz film—stands against the universe. Where John has been waiting all his life for one monumental fuckup, his buddy Ray (the principal fuckee) says, “All my life I been takin’ shit from inferior people” (the legacy of a hitch in the Marine Corps and a devotion to the philosophy of Nietzsche), and seizes the absurdity of the situation to make a dramatic, if anachronistic, stand against the Bad Guys (who still just might be the cops, so don’t think right-and-wrong and strong-and-weak are so clear cut in this film). When Ray disorients the enemy with a barrage of lightshow and heavy metal sound effects in the film’s climactic gun battle, it is a marshaling of the trappings of the Sixties against the encroaching apathetic amoral corruption of the post-Watergate Seventies. Near the end, when Ray trudges along a railroad track toward an important rendezvous, and begins singing the songs of basic training with what looks like real pride and satisfaction, it’s an important moment: the duty ethic, held in such contempt while it was invoked to justify wholesale slaughter in Vietnam, is vindicated in the courage and skill Ray deploys in order to do something for his (undeserving) buddy. Military training, put to good use, gives him a resurgence of that legendary esprit de corps understood best by the successful, victorious man of action. And if that’s not enough, he has asserted his ultimate superiority over the givers-of-shit and come out the winner in a battle over not high ideals nor political power, but simply personal profit. Victory, dignity, and two kilos of dope: “I got it all!” The celebration of his own person-ness balances handily with a little sequence up near the other end of the film, in which, with the sun low on the Pacific and a fortune in smack in the hold, Ray practices his self-defense moves on the deck of a California bound merchant ship: a workout for what is to come, a glorying in his own body, and as exciting a piece of film poetry as I’ve seen all year.
© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow
WHO’LL STOP THE RAIN?
Direction: Karel Reisz. Screenplay: Judith Rascoe and Robert Stone, after Stone’s novel Dog Soldiers. Cinematography: Richard H. Kline. Editing: John Bloom. Music: Laurence Rosenthal.
The players: Nick Nolte, Tuesday Weld, Michael Moriarty, Anthony Zerbe, Richard Masur, Ray Sharkey, Gail Strickland, Charles Haid, David Opatoshu.