Fire Down Below Review

by Louis Proyect (lnp3 AT columbia DOT edu)
September 12th, 1997

There is a genuine integrity to Steven Seagal's body of work. While the critical establishment is finally giving Jackie Chan the acclaim that he richly deserves as martial artist/film star, isn't it about time that we recognize Seagal for the politically progressive trail-blazer that he is? Make way, Oliver Stone, for a genuine rebel--one who is at home delivering class-struggle speeches or karate kicks to a villain's teeth.

In his latest film "Fire Down Below," Seagal plays Jack Taggart, an EPA inspector who goes undercover in rural Kentucky to find out who has killed his partner. His partner was investigating toxic spills. His cover is as a volunteer church worker who repairs the porches of congregation members. The pastor is played by Levon Helm, formerly of the band called The Band.

It turns out that a most reactionary member of the bourgeoisie, Orin Hanner (Kris Kristofferson), is being paid big money to hide toxic waste in the hills and waters of the beautiful Appalachian countryside, and the chemicals are killing fish and making children sick. Orin Jr.(Brad Hunt) runs the day-to-day operations in the hills while his dad sits in the corporate headquarters like an Appalachian version of the rotten businessman J.R. Ewing on the old TV show "Dallas". Now in his sixties, Kristofferson has adapted well to villainous roles. He was outstanding as the sadist cop in John Sayles "Lone Star" and equals that performance here.

Orin Jr. sends out one goon squad after another to kill Seagal, but he always manages to defeat them with well-placed kicks and punches. The charm of watching Seagal in action has a lot to do with his growing middle-aged paunch which many cinema fans can identify with. Seagal wears long coats throughout the film which tastefully disguise his love handles, but you can discern their contour if you look carefully.
Not only does he have lethal extremities, he is also cunning and lethal behind the wheel. One of Hanner's thugs tries to run him off the road, but Seagal dodges him at the edge of a cliff and the would-be killer drives to his death. This is an action hero par excellence: a combination of the Roadrunner, Bruce Lee and--best of all--Big Bill Heywood.

As soon as he returns to town after the car chase, he walks into the middle of a church service and mounts the pulpit. He tells the congregation that there are rich people who are trying to poison them. Their profits come at the expense of the town's children or the beauty of the environment. It is time to stand up to these greedy businessmen and fight for justice, says Seagal with a steely glint in his eye.

Louis Proyect

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