Fire Down Below
Screenplay : Jeb Stuart and Philip Morton
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Steven Seagal (Jack Taggart), Marg Helgenberger (Sarah Kellogg), Harry Dean Stanton (Cotton), Stephen Lang (Earl Kellogg), Kris Kristofferson (Orin Hanner Sr.), Brad Hunt (Orin Hanner Jr.)
The problem with most Steven Seagal movies is the very presence of Seagal himself. He tends to be an incredible distraction because, despite the situation or characters around him, he refuses to assume any character other than himself. For a while that was bearable, but now that he is starring in his tenth film, this persona is starting to wear a little thin. In his latest, "Fire Down Below," he sticks out like a sore thumb in a movie that is constantly trying to bloat itself with local color.
Expanding the environmental pose he struck in 1994's "On Deadly Ground," Seagal plays, of all things, an agent of the Environmental Protection Agency. After receiving some anonymous tips, he begins investigating an evil business tycoon (Kris Kristofferson) and his wormy son (Brad Hunt) who are apparently storing millions of gallons of toxic waste in an abandoned mine. Seagal goes to the small, backwards Kentucky town next to the mine and attempts to blend in with the locals to find out what's going on.
So how does he blend in with a group of people who would look most at home in "Deliverance?" He doesn't! The movies wants us to think he's trying to pass himself off as a nice guy who just wants to do free carpentry work, but maybe the slicked-back pony-tail, shiny black boots, and the alternating thigh-length black leather jacket and brown suede jacket with the long fringe tipped off the locals that he doesn't quite belong. There is something almost hilarious about seeing Seagal dressed head to toe in black leather and silk, fixing a porch step. Is there something wrong with blue jeans and a tee-shirt?
This is the problem I mentioned in the first paragraph. Aside from every other problem this movie has (plot, pacing, dialogue, acting, logic), the least Seagal could do is make an attempt to convince us that he is anyone other than himself. Instead, he drifts through the film in his usual, understated manner, talking under his breath and looking generally bored until the time comes to break a few noses, hands, arms, and anything else.
So what about some of those other problems? For fun, I'll just name a few. In one delirious car chase sequence, an eighteen-wheeler is trying to run Seagal's truck off a cliff, and a shot of Seagal driving shows him turning the wheel like he's out for a lazy Sunday drive. Of course, despite the multiple explosions, fistfights, and toxic waste spills throughout the film, Seagal never once looks tired, haggard, or ever has a hair out of place. Then there's the scene with Seagal a quarter of a mile underground in an abandoned coal mine, with explosions going off aboveground attempting to cave him in, and he simply walks out some mysterious back exit that no one else seemed to know about. Did I mention the toxic waste spill that hits everyone else but him? And that the toxic waste glows neon green to make sure we know what it is?
Mixed into all this is the local town outcast (Marg Helgenberger ) who Seagal romances, several guest appearance by country stars such as Travis Tritt and Randy Travis, and a lot of pushy environmentalism. I'm sure Al Gore or Carol Browner might get a kick out of Seagal standing at a church pulpit, pleading with the townsfolk to stop turning their back on the environmental destruction that's going on around them, but to the rest of us, it falls painfully flat. When Kristofferson tries to bribe him and asks how much he wants, Seagal nonchalantly asks him to take the poison out of the air and out of the ground. Please.
In some ways, I guess I appreciate the attempts of screenwriters Jeb Stuart ("Die Hard," "Outbreak") and Philip Morton to insert some social consciousness into their script, but this is not the place to do it. Action movies of this sort exist on a simple level of pulp entertainment, and all this concern about the earth just comes off like bad Hollywood posturing.
©1997 James Kendrick