Fire Down Below Review

by Scott Renshaw (renshaw AT inconnect DOT com)
September 7th, 1997

(Warner Bros.)
Starring: Steven Seagal, Marg Helgenberger, Harry Dean Stanton, Stephen Lang, Brad Hunt, Kris Kristofferson.
Screenplay: Jeb Stuart and Philip Morton.
Producers: Julius R. Nasso and Steven Seagal.
Director: Felix Enriquez Alcala.
MPAA Rating: R (profanity, violence, adult themes)
Running Time: 98 minutes.
Reviewed by Scott Renshaw.

    In an uncertain world, there's something strangely reassuring about the films of Steven Seagal. The economy may rise and fall, but Seagal will always dispatch all adversaries with the same vaguely bored smirk and without a hair in his ponytail drifting out of place. You can't depend on political institutions, but you can depend on the fact that Seagal will put together a wardrobe where nary a pastel nor a T-shirt will be found. All else changes, but Seagal stays the same -- the same facial expression, the same tone of voice for every emotion, the same humorless self-importance. He is stasis personified.

    There's not much new to say about FIRE DOWN BELOW, because there's not much new to see. Seagal plays a tough guy who dresses in black (for what it's worth, his name is Jack Taggart). His cause is righteous (a nasty industrialist is dumping toxic waste in a rural Kentucky coal mine, and Seagal is the E.P.A.'s resident Aikido master). Bad guys get in the way (almost invariably four or five at a time). Bones end up broken (almost invariably four or five at a time).

    And none of those bones ever belong to Seagal's character. A Seagal fight sequence is uniquely monotonous not just because the hero always wins -- action heroes usually win -- but because no one ever lays a finger on him. I doubt Seagal will ever make a truly thrilling action thriller (and yes, that includes UNDER SIEGE) because his ego could never permit any doubt as to the outcome; his action scenes are like Harlem Globetrotters games without the showmanship. When he appears in one scene in FIRE DOWN BELOW with a wee cut over his left eyebrow after outracing a homicidal trucker, you wonder how much convincing it took before Seagal allowed himself to bleed.

    It's that ego of his which makes so many Seagal films so wonderfully, terribly predictable. When he stops FIRE DOWN BELOW dead in its tracks to give a mini-version of his ON DEADLY GROUND speech on environmental responsibility, you know it's because he genuinely believes someone cares what he thinks on the subject. When he stops it yet again to show off his down-home guitar stylings, you know it's because he just can't help himself. When he works with directors like Bruce Malmuth, Geoff Murphy, John Gray and now Felix Enriquez Alcala -- a virtual Who's Who of "Who's He?" -- you know it's because he's not about to take orders. And when he tries to work up some sensitive romantic chemistry with Marg Helgenberger, you want to laugh out loud at the idea that he could love anyone as much as he loves himself.

    Sure, you can always count on a few token surprises, most of them completely ridiculous. There's a needless and unpleasant subplot about incestuous siblings -- nothing like dismantling Appalachian stereotypes -- and a few colorful bursts of conveniently fluorescent toxic goop. There's even Kris Kristofferson as the slimy head heavy, sharing a couple of scenes and a squinting contest for the ages with our leading man. Mostly, however, there's more of the same fight-chase-explosion narrative structure and automoton emoting which makes the latest Steven Seagal film a natural sequel to the last Steven Seagal film. There's nothing remotely entertaining about FIRE DOWN BELOW, but there's something steadying about Seagal's artistic intransigence. He won't go deserting us to do Hamlet on Broadway, or take a pay cut to work on an independent film. In turbulent times, you can almost take comfort in the knowledge that one man's name is as good as a plot description.

    On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 forgettable fires: 2.

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