Fire Down Below Review

by James Berardinelli (berardin AT cybernex DOT net)
September 15th, 1997


A Film Review by James Berardinelli

RATING (0 TO 10): 3.5
Alternative Scale: *1/2 out of ****

United States, 1997
U.S. Release Date: 9/5/97 (wide)
Running Length: 1:40
MPAA Classification: R (Violence, profanity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Cast: Steven Seagal, Marg Helgenberger, Harry Dean Stanton,
    Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Lang, Levon Helm, Brad Hunt Director: Felix Enriquez Alcala
Producers: Steven Seagal and Julius R. Nasso
Screenplay: Jeb Stuart and Philip Morton
Cinematography: Tom Houghton
Music: Nick Glennie-Smith
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers

    About the nicest thing I can say about a Steven Seagal film is that the average offering from the man who personifies wooden acting is more entertaining than sitting in traffic. FIRE DOWN BELOW, Seagal's latest (which seems just like his next-to-latest), is just about average. It offers what Seagal fans have come to expect from their icon: a healthy dose of ego and a lot of fights in which no one ever lays a finger on the star. It's a known fact that the more violent a Seagal movie is, the more enjoyable it is. To that end, FIRE DOWN BELOW could have used a few more fight scenes to cut down on such unimportant irritants as the laughable attempts at plot and character development.

    To his usual arsenal of kicks, punches, and chops, Seagal adds a new weapon: the politically correct, pro-environment message (actually, he pulled this one out of his bag of tricks for 1994's ON DEADLY GROUND, which he directed). The intent of this is apparently to bore his enemies to death. Let me say up front that I believe Seagal to be totally sincere in his concern for the environment, but it strikes me that preaching about it in an action film is not the best arena. It's not only a distraction, but it comes across as both sanctimonious and hypocritical. (It's okay for Seagal to beat the crap out of anyone who looks cross-eyed at him, but don't you dare dump that glowing green stuff down a mine shaft!)

    Seagal plays Federal Agent Jack Taggart (Seagal by any other name=85), an undercover operative who works for the EPA. His guise -- a pious itinerant carpenter (everyone laugh at the same time) who comes to a small Kentucky town to repair roofs, porches, and steps free of charge. His mission -- to find the secret toxic waste dump in the nearby coal mines and bring back a witness to testify about what's going on. His means -- any and all necessary, and the more violent, the better.

    Within a few days of his arrival, Taggart's cover has effectively been blown (it might have something to do with his treatment of local law enforcement officials or the fact that he announced very loudly in the middle of a crowded street that he's a Federal Agent), but that doesn't stop him from relentlessly trying to shut down the operation of the nasty, local bigwig (Kris Kristofferson, shifting his LONE STAR personality into the corporate world). Everyone with muscles appears to want to beat Taggart's head in, but he dispatches them four or five at a time (a few with single-digit IQs even come back for seconds). There's also an obligatory love interest, played with a distinct lack of enthusiasm by Marg Helgenberger, and a dull sidekick who is listlessly essayed by the normally-reliable Harry Dean Stanton. Seagal must demand that actors in his films discard any inherent talent so there's no threat of stealing scenes from him.

    One curious thing about FIRE DOWN BELOW is that it initially seems to want to refute the "dumb, hillbilly" stereotype that people often associate with residents of the rural communities of West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. However, by including an incest subplot and creating so many idiotic, cartoonish villains for Seagal to beat up, it actually reinforces the unflattering image. At one point, Taggart makes a comment about possibly coming to live in the area. I think we're supposed to infer that he's in awe of the beauty of the Appalachians, but it seems more likely that he has been seduced by the thought of so many readily-available punching bags.

    Seagal fans will find that their hero is still in his usual form (his form, like his expression, hasn't wavered since he debuted in ABOVE THE LAW). The action scenes are adequately directed (by Felix Enriquez Alcala, a TV director making the crossover to feature films), and there's a genuinely tense truck-and-car chase that is worth about 90 seconds of moderate excitement. The rest of the film is all by-the-book stuff, but that's what's expected whenever the name "Steven Seagal" tops the marquee.

Copyright 1997 James Berardinelli

- James Berardinelli
e-mail: [email protected]

The website has moved!!
The new address is:

"The cinema is not an art which films life: the cinema is something between art and life. Unlike painting and literature, the cinema both gives to life and takes from it..."

- Jean-Luc Godard

More on 'Fire Down Below'...

Originally posted in the newsgroup. Copyright belongs to original author unless otherwise stated. We take no responsibilities nor do we endorse the contents of this review.