My first press screening of 1998 and already I've gotten a prime
candidate for my worst ten of the year list. What an auspicious
beginning! Welcome to the dog days of winter when the only film
openings of merit are those Oscar contenders that the studios opened in
late December in New York and L.A. and which are just now beginning to
appear elsewhere. FIRESTORM, the directorial debut of DANCES WITH
WOLVES's Academy Award winning cinematographer Dean Semler, is the
first of the new year's crop of movies.
As our story opens, the movie pretentiously informs us that of the
tens of thousands of firefighters only 400 are "smokejumpers." We then
cut to a plane load of smoke jumping cowboys and one cowgirl, where one
of the gung-ho guys is taking a romance quiz from "Cosmopolitan."
Having the time of their lives, they then jump into the middle of a
When, even in the beginning, the director can't get the small
parts right, you can sense the movie is in trouble. With the noisy
fire roaring all about them and with the trapped people huddled near
their gasoline-filled cars, smokejumper Monica (Christianne Hirt) tells
them to get away from their soon-to-explode vehicles. Not bothering to
shout nor even get close to them, she announces her warning without
raising her voice much or approaching the people. Miraculously, they
manage to hear her and move away.
In a movie that specializes in cheap shots, the camera locates the
proverbial young girl trapped in a nearby burning building. As it does
throughout, overly dramatic cinematographer Stephen F. Windon from THE
POSTMAN uses extremely fast zooms right down to the endangered girl's
Our show's two heroes, the crew's chief, Wynt Perkins, played
laconically by Scott Glenn, and his second-in-command, Jesse Graves,
played by Howie Long in a weak attempt to be the next Steven Seagal,
enter the burning house looking for the little girl. In a panic they
have difficulty in locating her before they are engulfed in flames.
The manipulative script has her hidden in her own dollhouse.
This mawkish show cuts back to Monica, who has a life-or-death
decision to make. The chopper with the fire-retardant chemicals has
only enough to save one group. Will it be the large group near the
cars or the helpless little girl and Monica's two firefighting buddies?
She has only seconds to decide who will be saved. Yes, she goes for
the majority, but, miracle of miracles, the other three come out alive
Not content with a traditional firefighting story, Chris Soth's
screenplay attempts to jazz it up by having William Forsythe from
PALOOKAVILLE play a vicious killer named Randy Earl Shaye who sets a
forest fire so that he can join the crew to put it out and then escape.
("Hoods in the woods," is what the "ground-pounders" yell out when the
convicts are bused in to help them fight the fire.) Along the way,
Shaye picks up an ornithologist hostage played by Suzy Amis, who turns
out to have been trained in warrior ways by her father, who was a
Marine drill instructor.
Most of the highly predictable movie is a long chase in which poor
Howie Long is given one ridiculous stunt after another to look silly
performing. He flings a chain saw backwards over his head while riding
a speeding motorcycle so that the saw can hit the windshield of the
pursuing truck. Arguably the low point is when he escapes from a
locked burning building by riding a motorcycle conveniently parked
inside. Using a ramp, he shoots straight out of the top of the
building's attic, and when he hits the ground, he just rides off in a
cloud of dust.
When the film isn't using some stock footage of actual forest
fires, the simulated ones look hokey. Editor Jack Hofstra cheapens the
action even more by his use of burning flames in scene transitions.
The ending, with its sick twists, manages to be even worse than
the rest of the movie. Perhaps the best that can be said for the
picture is the faint praise I heard afterwards in the lobby, "It's not
as bad as some of the television sitcoms."
Copyright © 1998 Steve Rhodes