Thursday, August 20, 2009


You cannot see the trees for the testosterone in director Dean Semler’s synthetic outdoors action saga “Firestorm” (** out of ****) starring sportscaster Howie Long as a stalwart smoke jumper who parachutes into raging Wyoming forest fires to rescue little gals and grown-up gals from getting cremated. Any sparks that Howie ignited as an actor in John Woo’s “Broken Arrow” sputter in “Firestorm” with Long’s pulp diction performance. Chris Soth’s one-dimensional script doesn’t help Howie much as escaped convicts and flaming infernos challenge his physical prowess. There is nothing compelling about Howie’s character and his charisma cannot compensate for this monolithic hero. Leanly plotted as a sapling but predictable as a plunging redwood, “Firestorm” kindles minimal excitement with its prefabricated plot and Howie’s Styrofoam heroics. Of course, juvenile-minded audiences who don’t demand much from their cinematic exercises may find this half-toasted tale tolerable.

What modicum of merit the movie musters lies in its premise. Ultraviolent villain Randy Earl Shaye (William Forsythe of “Once Upon A Time in America”) cons his shyster lawyer (Terry Kelly of “Christina”) into committing wildfire arson. Shaye wants out of the Wyoming State Penitentiary to get his $20-million. It seems that the prison dispatches short-time convicts to help extinguish forest fires. Shaye plans to use the forest fire as a cover for his escape. Stabbing a friendly prisoner on the fire detail, Shaye disguises himself as the dead man, and then sneaks out of the joint. Soth asks us to believe that a man could escape from prison based largely on a tattoo worn behind the ear.

As villains go, Shaye shows early promise as a worthy adversary, until the filmmakers contrive obvious flaws in his character that assure his mortality. Veteran heavy William Forsythe supplies appropriate plug-ugly menace as Randy Earl Shaye. When we initially see Shaye, he resembles Sean Connery from the “The Rock,” with a beard and blond messianic coiffure. The filmmakers emphasize Shaye’s villainy by showing not only the character of Shaye but also Forsythe’s sneering face together in the same shot with the man that he kills. Driving the point home, director Dean Semler wants audiences to realize that Shaye is clearly an unrepentant sadist. Sadly, the events of the plot turn more on Shaye’s sadism than on his criminal ingenuity. Shaye’s comeuppance is horribly graphic but richly deserved for his murderous demeanor.

“Firestorm” follows clench-jawed Jesse Graves (ex-Raiders football star Howie Long) as he thwarts Shaye’s escape. The Spartan Chris Soth screenplay tosses in a woman to liven things up. “Titanic” supporting player Suzy Amis appears here as Jennifer, an ornithologist who finds herself trapped by the wildfire blaze. Fleeing from the fire, she runs smack into Randy Earl and his armed and stupid henchmen masquerading as Canadian firefighters. You must have stupid henchmen in “Firestorm” so that they can brag about their means of escape. When Jennifer finally gets away, Shaye cannot afford to let her live because she knows his plans.

Meanwhile, when Jesse learns about the forest fire, he skydives into it singlehandedly. He stumbles into Shaye, Jennifer and Shaye’s other henchmen. In other words, “Firestorm” constantly moves ahead in terms of storytelling, but with little efficiency, plausibility, or imagination. When Shaye tries his bogus Canadian firefighters story out, Jesse is neither impressed nor convinced. Matching fists and wits with Shaye’s motley crew, our brawny firefighter hero sneaks off with Jennifer and they evade Randy Earl until a climactic fight on a lake about to be engulfed in a withering blaze.

“Firestorm” derives its title from the phenomenon which occurs when two fires collide and suck all of the oxygen out of the air, creating one of Mother Nature’s nasty nuclear-style blasts which destroys everything in it. Soth’s script contains those suitable elements that any decent he-man actioneer should boast. The effect, however, is less than incendiary. The problem with Soth along with uncredited scenarist Graham Yost of “Speed” and “Hard Target” is that their characters are a poorly developed bundle of stick figures with neither depth nor complexity. Randy Earl Shaye is supposed to be a homicidal genius who goes so far as to impersonate a prisoner (brutally killing the convict by stabbing him in the neck), but doesn’t know squat about forest fires. Jennifer claims to be the offspring of a third generation Marine. Boasting that she can field strip automatic weapons like an AK-47, she fails to notice that the auto-pistol that she swiped from a sex offender isn’t loaded.

“Firestorm” does other things wrong, too. A neat gimmick--ping-pong balls that explode to start fires—is lamely utilized. The first time that they use it as a trick during a ping-pong game, and the second time, Howie uses it to start a backfire to divert oxygen from the first fire. But the ping-pong balls disappear afterward, never to be used again. There is a running joke about axes that the filmmakers bungle, too. At one point in the plot, Jesse and Jennifer lay a trap for Shaye and his sex-predator henchmen that goes afoul because it is so ineptly planned with half-baked results!

The biggest problem with “Firestorm” is its star Howie Long. Howie desperately needs acting lessons. He wears a big, silly, corn-fed smile throughout the action and delivers his lines as if he were giving a pregame interview. Physically, Long is right for the role, but he doesn’t make you believe that he is a smoke jumper, much less a character.

The only surprises in “Firestorm” are provided by rugged Scott Glenn as battle-weary smoke jumper Wynt Perkins who is crippled while rescuing a dog from a burning house. Revealing more about his role and character would cut down on what little energy “Firestorm” contrives. Sentimentality drips off the script at points, especially at the end when Jennifer learns that she has been incubating two bird eggs during this maelstrom of action.

The essence of “Firestorm” is tough guys proving how masculine that they are in a hot spot. Hurling axes, slinging chainsaws, jumping out of “perfectly good planes,” leaping cliffs with motorcycles, and slugging it out with each other should keep the juvenile-minded happy. “Firestorm” is the kind of movie where the bad guy is so evil that he spends his time murdering his own men. Even though Jennifer gets taken hostage, the bad guys find themselves too preoccupied to rape her. Sexual content is pretty mild. The best scene has Jennifer setting her signal fires faster than Howie can torch his own fires so that they can be spotted on radar from the fire tower. Oddly enough, the writers neglect to add any kiss-kiss to the bang-bang in the plot. There is no love interest so they must have been appealing to beer drinkers and juveniles. “Firestorm” might have been more fun if Jennifer and Jesse had gotten a little hot and bothered around all those blazes.

“Dances with Wolves” Oscar-winning photographer Dean Semler makes his less than inflammatory directorial debut with “Firestorm.” When he takes his cameras up for aerial shots of British Columbia, you find your breath catching in your throat. Sadly, Semler doesn’t breath the same magic into the thin, adolescent storyline. The special effects of the firestorm aren’t that imaginative. You feel like you’re trapped by expensive looking computer graphics instead of a real wildfire.

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