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Firepower (1993) Review

Firepower was directed by Richard Pepin (Cyber Tracker, Mindstorm), written by Michael January (Deadly Target, To Be the Best), and stars Chad McQueen (Possessed by the Night, Martial Law), Gary Daniels (The Gardener, Bring Him Back Dead), Jim Hellwig (WWF’s “Ultimate Warrior”), Joseph Ruskin (Robin and the 7 Hoods, Deadly Exposure), and George Murdock (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Breaker! Breaker!). It’s about two cops who infiltrate a cordoned-off section of future Los Angeles to find the truth about a rumoured cure for AIDS by fighting their way to the top of an underground fighting ring.

The Plot: With how many thousands of B-movies there were released (and still are) into the wild, it helps to get wacky with one’s plot to help it stand out in the marketplace. January went all in for Firepower, and there’s no denying the spark – even if the general structure is derivative of Escape from New York.

In the then-future of 2007, the world has changed, plenty of advancements in technology and medicine have made their marks, including a working vaccine for AIDS. However, corruption hasn’t diminished, as a gang of counterfeiters is pumping out a fake version for profit from the criminal safe haven of a now lawless section of LA. With almost 30 years between the making of Firepower and now, the premise has lost an element of its outlandishness (if this was set in Chicago it wouldn’t be out of the question for the writer to be a time-traveler), but it’s still a wildly creative premise that facilitates memorable developments.

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After finding a dose of the vaccine and getting attacked by gang members, officers Braniff (McQueen) and Sledge (Daniels) opt to infiltrate the crime syndicate run by Drexal (Ruskin) and stop its production, even against Captain Croy’s (Murdock) advice. It boils down to a simple reworking of an old chestnut (even by 1993 standards) of a plot, with Braniff and Sledge taking part in a series of fights to the death, which culminates with the biggest bad: The Swordsman (Hellwig), but it’s enough to sustain interest.

While there are more developments, they’re usually minor. However, there’s a lot of world building that adds to the overall atmosphere of Firepower, which glides easily on its simplicity.

The Characters: Because of PM’s fixation on providing obscene amounts of action, the characters of their movies rarely stand out. Firepower doesn’t do much to change that general pattern, but January’s script makes an effort to do so.

Braniff is an unexpected family man who takes time out of his day to hang out with his young son and try to strengthen their connection. While he’s not quite the maverick that’s normally the lead, he does have some tendencies to take risks if it means putting away (or putting down) criminals. He’s not above lying to his wife about volunteering to go undercover, which adds a dimension that puts him a rung higher than other generic screen cops.

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Subtly named, Sledge is the significantly less serious foil to Braniff who – like his partner – is slightly skewed from expectations. He’s also not so much of a rebel, rather, he’s devoted to a fault while still working under his orders. Sledge goes as far as he can with his violence, jurisdiction, and daringness can take him without overstepping boundaries; this is at least all done with a smile and wit since it can’t all be original.

Drexal, while ostensibly the top of the chain in L.A., doesn’t get nearly the same amount of screentime as the miscellaneous fighters get. When he is on screen, Drexal is a middling version of the same money-hungry pseudo-dictator that tends to appear in movies with power vacuums. It’s The Swordsman that’s the real antagonist of Firepower, and though he doesn’t get many lines, he is played by the man whose WWE alias is “The Ultimate Warrior”, which is essentially his character here, and it works well enough.

None of the main characters stand head and shoulders above similar renditions, but the charisma of the two leads and the recognizable character actors playing the bad guys give them something to lean on.

The Action: Pepin normally stuck to one type of action for the majority of his films, depending on what the premise is. Surprisingly, Firepower is much more varied than most, with each kind of action setpiece being solid in its own way.

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Car chases are a staple of PM movies, and Firepower isn’t going to let the trend end. It doesn’t open with a chase, but it does cut to the chase (pun if you want it) within a few minutes, with several police cars weaving between concrete bridge supports to catch a couple of gang members who’ve gotten a bit rowdy. Of course, it ends in explosions, but the real eye-popping visual is the fact that there are two cars on top of each other by the end. Not content with one chase, there’s one involving a car, a motorcycle, a bus, and a helicopter all at the same time, and a couple more serial ones to boot.

Part of the conceit of the movie is the idea of the underground combat ring. January was unable to put a new spin on this idea, but there are still plenty of decent fight scenes stemming from it and a few additional dangers like random weapons and an electrified ring to keep things lively. Fights involving the Swordsman are often focused on brute force, making his opponents go on the defensive. It makes him more imposing, but also offers contrast when Braniff and Sledge get bold. Given that McQueen and Daniels are both legitimate martial artists, it’s no surprise that their fights are the best.

Gunfights pop up too, but there’s less to point out in that department other than their bloodiness. They’re merely adequate and thankfully aren’t the main focus since the editing around them is frequently clumsy. Firepower’s chases and melees, though, are sticklers for quality.

The Technics: Judging based merely on looks, it seems like Pepin gave himself an extra chunk of change to make this movie. Granted, he stumbles in a lot of the same places his other productions – directed or produced – normally do.

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Costume and set/location design are what give the movie a leg up. The production team behind all of these things did a good job at selling a scrappy near-future full of gadgets and uniforms that make the world believable. The sound design is a bit more distinct too, with pounding punches and electronic noises that pair with the tech. Mike Hall’s (Hot Boyz, Zero Tolerance) sound mixing isn’t great, though. Sometimes the dialogue is a bit muted, and other times computer noises are ear-splittingly loud. I guess it allows the audience to appreciate the foley work.

What doesn’t look much different in Firepower is its cinematography, which is as bland as ever for a PM movie; full of flat, mid-range shots and the reuse of the same two angles during the death matches, it looks higher budget, but lacks a distinct directorial style. Pacing is also a bit of an issue. While it’s not short on action scenes, there may in fact be a couple too many fights with too little narrative growth in between, which leads successive fights to run together. That may not be the opinion of action junkies, but little breaks help.

Pepin and January didn’t reinvent the fight film formula with Firepower, but there’s a memorable plot in play, plenty of solid action scenes, and some charismatic actors doing a fine job in bringing some personality to a run-down subgenre.

Firepower is available on Digital platforms including Tubi. If you’re looking to power up your watch list, FilmTagger can offer a few suggestions.

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