Go long with Howie Long. Fight fire with fire this Friday in Firestorm.
After Savoy Pictures (A Bronx Tale, Serial Mom, No Escape, Tales From the Hood, Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde, White Man’s Burden) went belly up 20th Century Fox picked up the Firestorm script and decided to roll the dice by casting ex-football player Howie Long as the lead. Originally it was supposed to be bigger in scale and budget, hell even Sly Stallone signed on. But everything got pared down and the end result is pretty interesting and pretty delightful. Well, as delightful as a raging firestorm can be anyway.
Let’s start with the obvious. Howie Long got the part based on his performance in Broken Arrow where he played John Travolta’s number two (I guess it’s also possible that the folks at Fox got a hold of his deleted scene from ThatThing You Do! and liked him in that too). He does do a decent job in that movie and I can see the temptation to put him in more roles. The man was only a couple of years out from football so he still looked fucking huge and could move well. His presence was strong yet his attitude was reserved. And with that big glowing smile on his face you’ve got someone you can work with. In BrokenArrow he was ideal for the role because he plays someone that you think is a good guy but then turns out to be a traitor. Finding an actor that can play both sides willingly and convincingly isn’t the easiest thing and I think he pulled it off.
So now Long needed to step up his game big time because this film was hinging a good deal on his performance. And you know, he does just fine. Not great or particularly memorable but completely serviceable. He’s got the size of Schwarzenegger, the friendly spirit of Stallone and…well…that’s it. He’s missing something. While Long’s greatest strength is that he can handle the action scenes very well, his biggest weakness is that he has no charisma. There’s nothing that sets him apart from the pack. Van Damme and Seagal had martial arts, Bruce Willis embodied the everyman with his build and approach, Stallone was the all American fighter (having a notable face and voice helped a great deal) and Schwarzenegger was the (memorable in every aspect) mountain of muscles. Long had nothing to offer that these guys couldn’t do better. He would need to have either serious acting chops or work with one of the best production teams shooing one of the best action scripts ever to compete with his contemporaries. It’s not even like he was the first football player to cross over into movies so he couldn’t use that novelty to his advantage either. Just a couple of years earlier in 1991 The Boz did a bang up job in the little known but fuckin’ awesome Stone Cold. Now that’s how you stand out. Get yourself a wacky haircut and a giant pet lizard.
It’s sort of a shame because like I said, Long isn’t bad here. He totally pulls off the role of a guy who fights wildfires in Wyoming but then also has to go toe to toe with some scumbags. He just lacks any kind of personality. So in that sense he’s better relegated to number two roles (not that those parts don’t or shouldn’t require a cool persona, but it’s not as important as your two main leads). Although for him it didn’t matter. Firestorm didn’t catch and Long only did a couple more roles before calling it quits on acting altogether.
Ok, enough about Howie Long. Let’s move on to William Forsythe (Out for Justice, The Substitute) who plays our villain. This sonuvabitch specializes in crazy and while this may be more on the tame side for him he still puts on a good show. It’s a little weird actually because either he or the filmmakers couldn’t decide if this character was supposed to be more of an intellectual or a brute. Not that those two things can’t coincide (Darth Vader and Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men are some examples) but those qualities didn’t blend in this case. Forsythe will be saying some cunning remark with the smuggest goddamn look on his face one moment and then be all over you with a gun and a grimace the next. He’s always fun but this performance was a little uneven. It could’ve been a lot worse though. We did get one of the all time greats as the bad guy after all.
In terms of fire, there’s a lot of it. The people who put this together certainly delivered on that. You really feel the heat too. I saw it when it was like seven degrees outside or some shit and it was getting me a little hot just looking at the screen. It all looks great too with what seems like mostly real fire. It’s only at the very end where I noticed they whipped out the primitive and horrible looking CGI fire. Unfortunately, even though there’s plenty of fire it wasn’t used in the most effective way I think. It’s more of an overarching threat in the background. Only one person dies by fire and, while that death is pretty gnarly, there should’ve been more burns and uses of fire as a weapon. You could’ve easily written fire out of the script and not a whole lot would’ve been affected.
The action sequences aren’t bad though and are nicely varied. The picture opens with a big scene involving rescuing a little girl from a cabin in the blazing woods. It’s a classic setup and execution with Long going against orders and running in to fetch the girl. Of course it’s not that easy and complications arise but by the end Long is walking in slow motion out of the smoke carrying that little fucking girl unharmed. It’s a great scene that makes a very impressionable start to the film.
My favorite part is probably the fight between Long and one of Forsythe’s henchmen (Vladimir Kulich (The13th Warrior)). They go hand to hand in an outpost and they actually look kinda evenly matched (Kulich is gigantic). They use various items to battle with including axes and a canoe.
The chase scene that follows with Long on motorcycle and the bad guys in a truck is also nicely handled. The part where Long, while on his bike, starts a chainsaw by throwing it down towards the camera while holding on to the starter rope (I looked it up, that’s what it’s really called) so that it yo-yo’s back up is phenomenal. It reminds me of Schwarzenegger cocking his shotgun one handed while riding a Harley in T2. To top it off Long then tosses that motherfucker over his shoulder right into the bad guy’s windshield. You know what? I take it back, that’s my favorite thing in this movie. That quick little part is genius.
That last bit in particular must’ve been leftover from the original script which was written by Graham Yost. He had recently penned Speed and Broken Arrow so this guy was on a fuckin’ roll. However the script ended up being changed so much that some other dude (who essentially hasn’t done anything else) got credit. But there are some remnants left behind that I don’t think are too difficult to pick out. Aside from the part I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the ticking clock with some sort of constant threat is a trademark of Yost’s other two well known scripts. In Speed the bus can’t go below fifty miles per hour, in Broken Arrow Hale has to stop Deakins before he escapes with a nuclear bomb, in Firestorm they have to make it out of the woods before the firestorm engulfs them.
Also, the angle with Scott Glenn (Backdraft, Training Day) having something to do with the villain’s plot must’ve been more prominent and fleshed out. The way they rewrote it and cut it down it ends up not making any sense. They reduced it to such a small sub-plot that it should’ve been done away with all together.
And teaming up the hero with a strong female counterpart is another trademark of Yost. Jack Traven has Annie, Hale has Terry and Howie Long has Suzy Amis (Blown Away) (I don’t think we ever learn her name in the movie). She plays an ornithologist that gets caught up in the action. She’s also an ex-marine…maybe…it’s a little unclear but that’s the excuse they give as to why she can trade places with someone on a motorcycle going full speed and pop a knee back into place ‘n shit. The problem is they tell us about this marine business too late. She does her most ridiculous shit a couple of scenes in a row and then after all that exhibition we finally find out. They really shouldn’t have gone that long.
Dean Semler’s only other directorial work is the dull Seagal picture The Patriot. From what I remember Firestorm is the better one. But Semler is really a cinematographer and holy shit has he worked on a ton of fucking mainstream films. Some highlights are The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2), Dances with Wolves and Waterworld. And he’s still doing nothing but huge films, he just did Maleficent. It’s weird though because he didn’t do his own cinematography on Firestorm. Instead it was another insane dude, Stephen F. Windon (Deep Blue Sea, Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6). But anyway, Semler does just fine. There isn’t anything remarkable or very amateurish about the directing. It’s solid.
So all in all this is a fun one. It’s also fascinating to think about. Like the fact that this was supposed to be a Stallone vehicle because I could totally see him starring in something like this. That’s probably because Cliffhanger is so similar (Cliffhanger: a group of bad guys traverse mountain tops to find suitcases of money only to be thwarted by an expert on the terrain; Firestorm: a group of bad guys make a prison break to find a hidden cache of money and traverse through the woods only to be thwarted by an expert on the terrain). And I think you can tell that the original script must’ve been a good deal better. It would’ve been cool to get the big budget version but this intimate one ain’t bad.
With that said I guess I would only recommend it to big action fans. It’s sort of a curiosity in the genre because of who it stars, the story behind it and even who directed it. The thing is there are better action curiosities to check out first like Stone Cold and Gymkata.