Saturday, May 31, 2014

Fire Down Below

All you need to know about FIRE DOWN BELOW is that Steven Seagal plays an undercover Environmental Protection Agency (!) agent who tries to stay under the radar by wearing a ponytail and a dazzling display of brightly colored Asian tunics and expensive leather coats. On the other hand, any film that co-stars Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton, and Levon Helm cannot be ignored.

Seagal’s cover, which is busted about two minutes after he arrives in the small Kentucky town where FIRE DOWN BELOW takes place, is a carpenter doing God’s work for Reverend Goodall’s (Helm) church, fixing up the congregation’s houses for free. He’s really there to avenge the death of a friend and get some evidence against wealthy Orin Hanner (Kristofferson), who made $300 million by dumping toxic waste into the local mines.

All the backstory is awkwardly dispensed via flashbacks over the opening titles, which whiz through Seagal’s friendship with the dead agent (John Diehl from MIAMI VICE) and his assignment from boss Richard Masur (THE THING). Since I know director Felix Enriquez Alcala (THE GOOD WIFE) didn’t hire names like Diehl and Masur to work for three seconds, much of what he shot hit the cutting room floor (also confirmed by scenes in the trailer that are missing in the film).

Alcala, a television veteran helming his first feature, may have been right to dump the introduction and drop Seagal (and us) immediately into Kentucky, though the script by Jeb Stuart (DIE HARD) and Philip Morton (12:01) is muddled all the way through. Surprisingly, there’s precious little action in the first two acts, the big exception being an exciting chase between Seagal’s battered pickup and a Mack truck that doesn’t end well for the anonymous driver of the semi. Alcala kicks the action up a notch in the final reels, along with the prerequisite quips from the star, who seems relaxed and even charming.

Seagal, whose eccentricities were duplicated by his screen characters, incongruous as they may seem, befriends Harry Dean Stanton (REPO MAN) and romances pretty Marg Helgenberger (CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION), so we’re on his side, as if we weren’t already. Another odd bit from the screenwriters is a subplot involving Helgenberger’s brother, played by Stephen Lang (AVATAR), which doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story Alcala’s trying to tell.

FIRE DOWN BELOW is entertaining enough, but not a hit for Warner Brothers. In fact, it was effectively the end of Seagal’s career on the big screen. His next picture, THE PATRIOT, went directly to home video, which is where, with a few exceptions, he has toiled ever since.

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