Fire Down Below Poster

Fire Down Below (1997) Review

Fire Down Below was directed by Felix Enriquez Alcala (Madam Secretary, Battlestar Galactica: Razor), written by Philip Morton (12:01, Real Gangsters) and Jeb Stuart (Vikings: Valhalla, Just Cause), and stars Steven Seagal (Under Siege, Maximum Conviction), Marg Helgenberger (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, All Rise), Harry Dean Stanton (Repo Man, Alien), Levon Helm (Feeling Minnesota, End of the Line), Brad Hunt (Billy Boy, Cookers), Stephen Lang (Braven, Old Man), Kris Kristofferson (Eye See You, Traded), and Richard Masur (Tumbledown, Hanover Street). It’s about an EPA agent making a case against the negligent owner of a coal mining company.

The Plot: Frontloading can be a killer in any kind of movie, but the last place the average viewer would expect that to be a part of would be a Seagal starrer. So many details are given that subplot after subplot has to make up the bulk of the movie.

In a few short minutes, EPA admin Pratt (Masur) tells all of Fire Down Below’s story. A fellow agent, as well as FBI informants, have turned up dead while investigating the business practices of a mining company in Kentucky. All signs point to the owner, Orin (Kristofferson) dumping waste into the ecosystem. This is where Taggert (Seagal, half-decent) comes into play.

To do what since everything is already known to the agency? I don’t really know, but he arrives anyway to integrate with Reverend Goodall (Helm), question townsfolk like Sarah (Helgenberger) and Cotton (Stanton) and bring back a witness, which they already have.

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With every beat laid out, there’s not much for Fire Down Below to occupy itself with, so writers Morton and Stuart emplace makeshift barricades to delay Taggert, like having to abide with caution around Orin Jr. (Hunt), deal with the mining company’s paid-off enforcers, and dive deeper into a conflict between Sarah and her brother Earl (Lang). Striving to provide a full narrative is one thing but coming up with a decent story only to give everything away within two(!!) minutes of the studio credits is something I can’t remember seeing before or since Alcala’s film. There aren’t any surprises and as such, the movie wanders for as long as it can.

The Characters: Once there was a time when Fire Down Below was planned to be a real movie with characters, backstories and believable personalities – however, that was before it was transformed into a Seagal movie, where depth goes to die. Taggert is, of course, the best at everything. From his innate nobility to his ladykilling charm, to his skill with his hands in all sorts of fields like woodworking, guitar playing, and Aikido (this is probably the least believable trait), he’s just a great guy. So great that everyone around him need not ever be present, since everything is a shoo-in for the omnipotent being.

Apart from his “relationship” with the dead EPA agent, Taggert is a blank slate that’s never brought into the third dimension by the actor charged with the role. The streak is alive, even if differentiation between Seagal’s characters is deader than the fish in town.

Sarah is the closest Fire Down Below gets to having a real character among its cast. Struggling financially with her beekeeping and honey-making due to her family being labelled as untrustworthy, she’s doing her best to keep on providing for herself when no one else will. Opportunity for an arc arises here, but the one that is delivered on is the obligatory romance with Taggert.

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Bad guys in the world of Kentucky aren’t just bad guys, they’re downright evil. Orin Jr. Is a conniving bully who hides behind his father’s money and his goons’ fists, laying traps for the undercover agent in hopes he’ll up and leave. His father isn’t much better, dumping toxic waste wherever he sees fit since he has the money to pay any fines and hire any prostitute he pleases.

And Earl is the typical Appalachian sibling, beating on his sister, making goofy threats, and publicly chastising anyone who tries to stop him. In case it wasn’t clear, these are caricatures. Normally this would work in a Seagal film, but the problem is that the audience is supposed to take these instances seriously, which is virtually impossible.

The Drama: At the time of filming, the producer/star was going through an environmentalist phase. His heart was – for the briefest of moments – in the right place, but the script is too boneheaded and pandering to make the conflicts of Fire Down Below engaging.

Said interruptions of nature are easily solved, with Alcala pointing towards the mining company and Orin Sr. Immediately via the constant burning of chemicals and ominous lights above a not-so-distant mountaintop. Fine enough, but the helmer devotes little time to these issues, barring a few scenes of Taggert taking water samples and talking to Goodall and Cotton about the illnesses and woes that have supposedly crippled the town, which is largely unseen throughout the runtime. It’s a strange denial of the initial premise, with the subplot accounted for by the end of the first act.

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Community problems and relationships make up another facet of the film’s drama, and this is the one element that moderately works. Though the representation of middle America is largely stereotypical, the connections between the civilians are at least communicated well. Because of Orin’s domination of the economy, his employees force civilians’ lips to tighten, noticeable in almost everyone who dares speak of his negligent processes.

Fire Down Below isn’t all gloomy though, with church gatherings and moments of happenstance giving an idea of what life was like before being corporatized. Rudimentary this may be, but it gives weight to the central conflict.

Problems between Sarah and Earl are the last tenant here, with repetitive scenes of the brother intimidating the sister in front of her newfound love interest clearing any doubts about the death of their father – which is the reason the two are on tough terms to begin with. Tiring as this is, the movie doesn’t know when to quit, making it the main focus without any subtlety instead of the action scenes (of which there are few) that spawn from the other categories; a case of misplaced interest and clunky writing tanks the more pertinent issues.

The Technics: One of the final few theatrical releases for its star, Fire Down Below retains a lot of the troubles that plagued the outings that preceded it, making it no secret why the box office was unresponsive to its release.

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Because the distributor wanted another lean actioner, the film was cut down to a 105-minute runtime. That’s a reasonable move on a surface level, but the problem lay in what was removed from the feature: most of its action sequences. Without them, there’s just inert drama, a star outclassed by the supporting cast, and a central conflict whose details are pre-emptively clarified and resolution guaranteed. To boot, all of this comes at a glacial pace.

Visual elements still fare well under Alcala, who maintains a keen sense of place via an on-location shoot in various Kentucky towns, some striking production design, beautiful lighting, and adept cinematography from Tom Houghton (Elementary, Rescue Me). Some pieces of the surface-level design are a bit overindulgent, such as so many locals being perpetually covered in soot and Taggert’s wardrobe an endless array of hysterical outfits, but it’s an overall feast for the eyes.

Too dull, too long, and too pandering, Fire Down Below works almost exclusively on a visual level. Though the director and the supporting cast did fine work, studio mangling, and a stiff star keep the movie from being impactful.

Fire Down Below is available on DVD, Blu-ray as well as Digital Platforms from Warner Bros. And if that doesn’t fill your appetite for action, FilmTagger can suggest some further viewing.

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