This is a pretty enjoyable, totally forgettable action movie directed by Dean Semler, a cinematographer who also directed Steven Seagal’s historic first DTV picture THE PATRIOT. The star is Howie Long, formerly of the Oakland Raiders, currently of the Radio Shack commercials. After a supporting role in BROKEN ARROW they tried to give him the football-star-to-action-star transition like they did to Brian Bosworth. The Boz never caught on big, but he was able to continue starring in DTV movies for several years after STONE COLD. Things didn’t work out that way for Howie, and this is his only starring role. I was gonna say he was more comparable to Lyle Alzado, but I just looked up Lyle and he’s starred in more than I realized. So I don’t know who he’s comparable to.
Anyway, Howie’s movie career was not a success, that is if you define success as “the ability to make enough money that they can keep making action movies starring this particular football player.” That never happened, but as far as I’m concerned he is successful in this movie. He’s square but likable and I guess it’s just nice to see a capable hero you haven’t seen a million times before.
Another thing that makes the movie unique is that it’s about fire fighters instead of cops. It makes for a movie somewhat less violent than you might usually want (his talent isn’t for killing, it’s the opposite), but it works. Howie is part of an elite team of fire fighters who parachute into the middle of forest fires. The overly serious text at the beginning tells us that there are 400 of them total and that “These elite men and women are called smokejumpers.” They don’t have water hoses or anything (too bad, I wanted to see an action scene where he blasts people with water) but they have axes and chain saws and they just run around and help people who are trapped. Or they start other fires to strategically control the already burning fire. Or whatever. I suppose they are colleagues of Seagal’s character Forrest Taft from ON DEADLY GROUND. But they can fly.
In the movie, the great William Forsythe (ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, OUT FOR JUSTICE, STONE COLD) plays a robber/murderer who has a forest fire set as part of a prison break plan. He gets onto a crew working the fire, then escapes and leaves all the prisoners but two (one of them being Barry Pepper) locked in the bus to fry like ants under a magnifying glass. So you know he’s an evil bastard. He and his buddies disguise themselves as Canadian firefighters and head for the hills. They encounter a female ornithologist (also former Marine, it turns out, of course) who they take hostage. Howie later ends up saving her and since she has discovered the fugitives’ escape plan, they chase after her and Howie trying to kill them. So I guess you could stretch it a little and say it’s DIE HARD in a forest fire.
By the way, he hates water, at least he says he does. I think this means that he is actually one with the fire. He fights fire because he is fire. And water is his opposite. On the other hand, they might’ve figured Indiana Jones hates snakes, you gotta hate something to be an iconic movie hero. You could hate cats, you could hate germs, you could hate cilantro, this guy happens to hate water. But not that much. He is okay with it enough to have one of those awesome underwater shots where he’s swimming and you can see fire glowing above the surface.
At first you might think wait a minute, firefighters are at least as heroic as cops, but they don’t carry guns, so where’s the excitement? That’s when I gotta remind you that carrying an ax is WAY cooler than carrying a gun. The action scenes are pretty cool because they usually involve either a fire ax, a chain saw, or a parachute. The funniest part is when they jump a motorcycle off a cliff and then parachute to safety. He also does an excellent chain saw throw, but sadly doesn’t hit any meat.
The fighting, when it happens, is pretty basic pro wrestling/bar fight type stuff which is nice, they don’t pretend firefighters have a martial arts background. Although that would’ve been cool also.
William Forsythe gets a pretty good death. First he gets axed, then his head is rammed through a boat and his head catches on fire. Pretty decent way to go out. I would’ve liked to see him running around screaming and waving his arms in the air while his head was on fire, but you can’t have everything.
The fire imagery is pretty nice, although sometimes obviously digital. But it mostly looks real, same with the parachuting.
Apparently the real smokejumpers criticized the movie for being phony (duh), and one of the stuntmen died making the movie. That’s a real bummer for a small time movie like this, but I had a good time. I suppose I would rather that guy still be alive than have the movie, but since I can’t do anything about it at this point all there is left to do is watch the movie and enjoy it. And that’s what I did. Rest in peace.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.