Fire Down Below (1997), or His Acting Is Bad, But His Energy Drink Is To Die For…

27 08 2009

Steven Seagal; the sleepy shaman, the mayor of Murderville, Jackrabbit Slim, Captain Scoop. So many nicknames for such a legendary action star. I have yet to do a Steven “Talk To My Ass” Seagal movie yet, and the only reason I can come up with for this is that I’m actually clinically dead from the heart down. Steven Seagal, in his tenure as an actor, or as I like to call him, an artist, has run the gamut from little-known nobody, to widely-seen action star, to rarely-seen action star, to widely-mocked nobody in his career, but what makes him special is that he keeps on going. Somehow Seagal, a man well into his 50s, is still cranking out movies like they’re going out of style. They’re all pretty much the same movie, with the same plot, dialog, and archetypes at work, but the message remains strong nevertheless. He writes and performs his own music, he’s formulated his own energy drink (seriously), and he’s even designed his own aftershave called Scent of Action (seriously). All this wonder at the ripe old age of 57. Few people would have guessed that Seagal would even be working at all after 1997, when the box office dud Fire Down Below was released to America’s disappointment and his fans’ chagrin. It’s not a very good movie that features some good actors lowering themselves to the iron-lad will of Seagal’s eye-rollingly god-like character. I feel a little worse off for having watched this, so let me fill you in on why this seemed like the end of Steven “Asian Experience Flavored Energy Drink” Seagal’s illustrious career.

Basically, an evil corporation is dumping chemicals in the old mines of the Eastern Appalachians, and it’s causing a lot of problems for the people who live nearby. An EPA agent/omnipotent sky-king named Jack Taggart is sent to investigate reports of this dirty business, but he meets a surprising amount of resistance from all over the peaceful town. Reasoning that everyone is employed by the toxic dumping company and are fearful of their jobs, he understands this transgression and spares their lives. Instead, he puts pressure on evil coal kingpin Orin Hanner while searching for hard evidence of this illegal dumping that is making the townspeople sick. Can our hero save the tiny Appalachian paradise before it’s too late for its denizens and the hot-but-disturbed young woman he was looking to score with? Oh, who are we kidding; you bet your ass he can!!!

This movie features Seagal again going for a good cause, like he did with his previous flop, On Deadly Ground, but like that one, he does not have it in him as an actor to step aside and let the message take precedence. Steven Seagal, for better or worse, IS Fire Down Below; it’s a shoe tailor-made for him by Nepalese monks who also grow the ingredients for his energy drinks, and while it fits very well, it doesn’t allow for anything else to enter into the equation.

Taggart is THE MAN, much like Seagal is always THE MAN in his films. He almost never gets hurt, he always has a solution for every problem, he’s wise beyond his years, he’s supposedly handsome and girls want to jump his bones, andhe can handle all the world’s evils by himself. He’s THE MAN to the point where it just can’t be believed anymore. It’s fucking ridiculous! By the end of the movie, he has nearly single-handedly shut down the evildoers, saved the town, and hooked up with the girl. It’s not as bad as On Deadly Ground, where he purported his character to be The Chosen One, but even in the action world, he’s conspicuously perfect.

The periphery around Seagal is pretty; the Appalachians truly have some of America’s most breathtaking vistas. And the actors around Seagal do their part, although the love interest Sarah, played by Marg Helgenberger, is just grating to me for some reason. She seems a little too, well, not from Kentucky to be living there, and it bothers me every time she talks about “the people of Jackson this” and “the people of Jackson that”. You sound like you’re from fucking Michigan, Marg, no matter how much you mask it; that’s all I’m saying. Harry Dean Stanton plays Cotton, who is an honest man working an honest day’s wage, and he should be respected more by the script, but he isn’t. Instead, he’s Taggert’s uneasy informant and deeply inferior friend in Kentucky. It’s a shame, because I liked Stanton in this, and appreciated the earnestness he lent to the role. And I think Kris Kristofferson plays Snidely Whiplash here, but the credits list him as Orin Hanner. I dunno, but whoever he is, he’s getting bamboozled by Taggert too much here for him to stand out as even a viable obstacle for Steven “Blood and Thunder” Seagal.

Fire Down Below was one of the last Seagal movies to make it into theaters, and I can see why. It doesn’t have anything new to add to the legend of Seagal, other than his obvious status as THE MAN. And while these days he’s hoping to make it big again with straight-to-DVD titles and a reality show on A&E, I think I’ll remember him mostly for the times in the late 90s when he fumbled uncontrollably but couldn’t let go of his omnipotent persona, a problem he still deals with to this day. But until he finds a way to deal with his and his characters imperfections, I give Fire Down Below 3 1/2 Scents of Action out of 10.

Tomorrow we have a treat; the rare and re-released classic The Pornographers! Until then!

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