Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cinema Répréhensible #1: Fire Down Below

Welcome to the first entry in the Cinema Répréhensible mini-series of reviews that will frequent this blog from time to time. The purpose of this mini-series is to highlight those ridiculously awful films that are nigh impossible to stop watching, no matter how hard you try. Our first entry is Steven Seagal's environmental screed from 1997, Fire Down Below. It's a standard Hollywood plot of "outsider comes into town to straighten out crooked goings-on involving corrupt law enforcement and a good 'ol boys network (GOBN) that is tied into the money running town, typically in the hands of one man." We have seen this formula a million times before, from the various iterations of Walking Tall, Road House, etc. What is it that makes Fire Down below so utterly awful, and yet so car-wreck watchable?

Let's start off with the cliches: the plot above is one; another is the setting of the film in the "Deep South." There are cameos by Country music artists Marty Stuart and Travis Twitt, er, I mean, Tritt. The mullets on display have lives of their own, including production assistants, and there is a showdown in a casino. There's the local church, which meets an unfortunate fate, and the initially-untrusting-but-eventually-supportive locals, dressed stereotypically. This time around, the corruption is all about toxic waste and its possible leakage into the water supply, in which the GOBN is complicit because of the money they're being paid to store the stuff deep in abandoned mines. There's some family drama, including implications of craziness, incest, etc. and the damsel in distress in the obligatory romantic subplot is a kindly [wait for it...... just a little longer......] beekeeper. Yep, beekeeper; see her daddy was originally a miner and became an engineer who decided to get out of that and start keeping bees as his third career because of all the corruption involved in the mines and what grew out of it, including the toxic waste business, which has somehow managed to finance the casino above. Well, of course, Daddy winds up dead and daughter gets blamed, but is acquitted because the police force is so incompetent, they can't even frame someone properly. The whole enterprise would normally scream direct-to-video, but because this is 1997 and Steven Seagal is involved, it's big budget, which means it gets a well known screenwriter (Jeb Stuart) a competent director, and decent production values. Two minutes in, we know exactly how this movie is going to end, but we still keep watching. Why? The script isn't particularly compelling (and verges on the ridiculous at times), and Seagal is not an Oscar calibre thespian, though he's not terrible here.

First things first: this is a beautifully shot film. There are scenes you could hang on a wall as artwork: gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, scenic tableaus--did I mention this was beautifully shot? The use of colour is impressive for a stereotypical action film. This is even more impressive when you realise that the Director of Photography, Tom Houghton, is mostly known for his television work; he's not a household name. Second, the acting talent involved does an impressive job with the lacklustre script: solid character actors like Harry Dean Stanton, Stephen Lang, Marg Helgenberger and Richard Masur, and equally impressive musicians turned actors like Kris Kristofferson (who should stick to acting; just sayin...) and Levon Helm. Third, the action is well staged, as is the rest of the film, which begs the question: why are such talented people involved with such dreck? The answer, of course, is that even talented people have to pay the bills, and if Hollywood is creatively bankrupt, you take what you can get. Until next time, here's a trailer if you're curious.