Fire Down Below (1997)

Fire Down Below (1997)- * * *

Directed by: Felix Enriquez Alcala

Starring: Steven Seagal, Marg Helgenberger, Stephen Lang, Brad Hunt, Levon Helm, Harry Dean Stanton, and Kris Kristofferson

Jack Taggart (Seagal) is an EPA agent with an attitude. In order to get to the truth about a large, illegal toxic waste-dumping scheme, he goes undercover as a handyman in rural Jackson, Kentucky, where the waste is said to be hidden. 

This toxic waste is causing the townsfolk to develop medical issues, and is even killing them. While Taggart finds friendly locals like Cotton (Stanton), Reverend Goodall (Helm), and Sarah Kellogg (Helgenberger), who he forges a relationship with, he does end up with a lot of opposition to his even being in their supposedly quiet little town. 

As it turns out, the sinister Orin Hanner (Kristofferson) is a corporate bigwig who is using the townspeople of Jackson as his own personal enforcers against Taggart so he can continue to make millions with his waste-dumping scheme. But Taggart vows to end this cycle of corruption and misery - by any means necessary. Will Taggart and his friends triumph over the forces of environmental evil? Find out today!

You know, it’s a funny thing...we’ve been so conditioned by Seagal’s latter-day efforts, that we assumed watching this older Seagal vehicle was going to be a crud-filled slog filled to the brim with mind-numbing stupidity. But we were very much refreshed and relieved to find out...wait for it...that Fire Down Below is actually a solid, worthwhile, and entertaining movie. Yes, that seems shocking, but that’s only based on the 2014 view of Seagal. 

Hark back to a time when he was a little thinner, his movies went to the theater, and the major studios ensured some level of professional quality. Seagal is as likable as Seagal gets, and he even smiles a few times. Plus his jackets are truly amazing fashion pieces. (Hence, we ventured a supposition that his full name in the movie was Jacket Taggart). This was in Seagal’s “Environmental” phase, where he wore buckskin coats and all his movies had to be about pollution or rainforests or something. Somehow his interest in that seems to have faded, as his latter-day DTV efforts seem to have him more as an unlikable thug.

If Hard Target was Van Damme’s “Bayou” movie, then Fire Down Below is Seagal’s answer to that. There’s plenty of banjo-pickin’ country music on the soundtrack (a lot of which is by Seagal himself, with none other than Todd Smallwood of Street Knight musical fame...what an amazing team-up!), and the first image of the movie is highly reminiscent of the cover of classic SNES game Phalanx. But the idea of a butt-kicking EPA agent who becomes “Undercover Handyman” is an enjoyable idea, but the whole “classic corrupt small town” feels very familiar.

But here’s the bottom line as we see it: Because this is a rural movie, which is very well-shot and has a nice atmosphere, and has a refreshing emphasis on actual characters, it seems the movie as a whole would have gotten more recognition and critical acclaim had it starred Billy Bob Thornton or Ed Harris instead of Steven Seagal. 

Take out some of the action scenes, and this could have worked well as a low-key drama like Chrystal (2004), Paris Trout (1991) or Sling Blade (1996).  But because this is a Seagal movie, it ran into a dilemma: As a drama, it’s not going to please drama fans, and as a straight-up action movie, it runs the risk of upsetting action buffs who have to have everything go at a breakneck pace with tons of brutal violence. 

We suppose the intended audience is...us, really, because we appreciate actual storytelling, atmosphere, and characters, as well as action. But we applaud Seagal and the rest of the cast for actually trying to make something respectable and not your average crud.

So set your newly-minted (and extremely warranted) modern-day Seagal prejudices aside and feel free to delve into the world of classic, pre-obese Seagal. We’re not afraid to say we thought Fire Down Below was a winner.

Comeuppance Review by: Brett and Ty 


venom said...

I personally have no prejudices against modern day Seagal whatsoever(probably because the first Seagal film that I ever saw was Out For A Kill) and I don't think he's ever played an "unlikeable thug", i've always found his characters fascinating.

It's too bad this film flopped at the box-office, as it's one of his more interesting efforts.

Kim said...

Guys come on... Fire Down Below and you don´t mention that he catches not one but TWO striking rattlesnakes with his bare hands!
Try that Jason Statham!

Roger Renman said...

I agree. this was the last great Seagal movie. Perhaps he should make more movies about subjects he's passionate about. Come on, Steven! Get a little crazy! Get a little environ-mental!

Roger Renman said...

I have to correct myself. Exit Wounds was made after this one. That was the last great Seagal movie.

Ty said...

Venom: Have you've seen Kill Switch? He's quite thuggish. This a solid outing.

Kim: That is clearly an oversight on our part and we apologize. Haha.

Roger: Agree as usual. You totally understand. Exit Wounds is a decent Seagal flick. He's more on the "mental" side nowadays.

venom said...

Yeah i've seen Kill Switch(I actually commented on your review of it) and while it's admittedly one of his lesser efforts, I still thought it was watchable enough, his character was a bit rough around the edges in that film admittedly, though I wouldn't go so far as to call him "thuggish".

Kim-if this were a Statham film, he'd probably catch three rattlensnakes, two in his hand and one in his mouth.

Exploding Helicopter said...

One of the things that I really love about this film is that even though Seagal whispers his dialogue everyone can hear what he says over very large distances.

Ty said...

Haha! That was great, amazing hearing.

Jack Thursby said...

Saw this a year or so ago. Yeah, a solid (if a little unspectacular) Seagal. Definitely a good palate cleanser after his recent output.

Always thought it's a shame he hasn't done any more "issue" films like this and On Deadly Ground.

Ty said...

Agreed. I wonder what his next issue movie could be? Maybe Oil for Food?