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Continued from last week's Part The First and spurred on by the release of the Evil Dead remake, we now rejoin our career retrospective of filmmaker Sam Raimi. When last we left off, Raimi and his close-knit group of loyal collaborators had been stymied by the box office indifference that greeted their first foray into mainstream Hollywood with the film The Quick & The Dead.
However, though his career as a director was bumping up against the "genre filmmaker" glass ceiling, he'd managed to become a well-regarded producer of studio action films via Hard Target and Timecop (two of the only three Jean-Claude Van Damme movies that actually hold up) and made an impressive jump to the booming mid-90's syndicated television world with an unexpected hot property - a series of campy made-for-TV fantasy/action movies about Hercules, starring newcomer Kevin Sorbo in the title role.
As such, just as Quick & The Dead was landing with a thud in theaters circa-1995, Raimi and longtime cohort Rob Tapert were making a splash on TV so big that it turned "syndicated mythic-fantasy action shows" into one of the hottest genre markets in the world.
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999)
Officially, Raimi was "only" the producer for the massively-popular Hercules series, but his stylistic flourish and signature "Three Stooges meets Famous Monsters" aesthetic are all over it. For six seasons Kevin Sorbo played a swashbuckling variation on the ancient Greek hero, brawling with monsters and costumed henchmen in pulp-fantasy scenarios mostly filmed in New Zealand. In fact, this is often cited as the first production that turned American producers on to the usefulness of New Zealand's natural beauty as uniquely well-suited to the genre - and it's even been suggested that the local filmmaking and stunt-acting industry that grew up around Hercules (and it's ultimately more successful spin-off Xena) directly enabled the ability of NZ's homegrown answer to Raimi, Peter Jackson, to pull off The Lord of The Rings a few years later.
Either way, the series was such a massive hit that it inspired a wave of fantasy/action copycats seeking to apply the Raimi/Tapert style to everything from Sinbad to Robin Hood to Mortal Kombat (yes, really). And then there was Hercules own spin-off, which quickly became an even bigger pop cultural force than the original.
Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001)
The setup for Xena couldn't have been simpler or more obvious. A darker cousin to Hercules (the protagonist was a reformed villain from the earlier series), the series was built around the cheesecake-for-teenage-boys sex appeal centered on a female lead played by New Zealand native Lucy Lawless - but it quickly became something much bigger. Hercules and syndicated 90's TV in general had no shortage of beautiful women in revealing outfits (this was, after all, the age of Baywatch), but Xena was unlike anything that the small screen had offered in terms of a female action hero in a long, long time. She was an enthusiastic brawler who relished combat, and retained a comfortably ambiguous morality throughout the series.
When the producers and writers learned (supposedly having never considered such before, though watching even the earliest episodes that's a bit hard to believe) that the series had attained an almost immediate and massive following in the lesbian community, storylines began to push the then-taboo boundaries of such fare by subtly (and then quite overtly by the final season) playing up the "more than friends, maybe" bond between Xena and her companion Gabrielle. When popularization of feminine-centered neo-paganism became a mid-90's trend among young women, the series dove headlong into revisionist histories involving Amazons, Druidism, Witchcraft and even pre-Helenic matriarchal religions (all filtered, to be sure, through Raimi and Tapert's pop fantasy prism). By the end, Xena was one of the most offbeat and atypical popular series on the air.
A Simple Plan (1998)
Raimi ventured far from his comfort zone and into the territory of his Coen pals for this dark drama about a group of middle-class friends who slowly but inexorably turn on each other after discovering a fortune in stolen cash. The less revealed about the plot the better, but suffice it to say this likely remains Raimi's strongest overall effort - an affecting drama that proves beyond a doubt that he's more than the sum of his visual panache and gory bag of tricks.
For Love Of The Game (1999)
Every filmography has a "huh?" wild card or two (I defy anyone to tell me Planet of The Apes would be discernible as a Tim Burton movie without Helena Bonham-Carter and Glen Shadix in the cast) and this film is Raimi's. It's a light, modest, coming-of-middle-age drama that's self-consciously devoid of almost all his typical tics, tropes and even dark sense of humor. As a movie, it's pretty darn good overall, but as an example of a filmmaker self restraint it's almost mind-blowing.
It's a star vehicle for Kevin Costner, completing his "Baseball Trilogy" as a soon-to-retire MLB ace who inexplicably finds himself in the midst of pitching a historic no hitter. As he does, his mind drifts in and out of flashbacks to the tumultuous relationship that he may (or may not) still have a chance to salvage. Yeah, it's one of those kinds of movies, but I can't deny that it works. A decent success in theaters, it found its true purpose as a perennial Father's Day gift on DVD.
The Gift (2000)
Raimi's late-90s "All Growed Up" trilogy concluded with this Southern Gothic supernatural thriller, which earned critical raves, but in my opinion, it wasn't nearly as good as Plan or Game were. Cate Blanchett is a homespun psychic/medium wrapped up in a murder plot involving Keanu Reeves and an eagerly post-Dawson's Creek Katie Holmes.