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Movie Review: Fire Down Below

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Who do you call when some shady corporate tycoon with transparent eyebrows is discovered dumping barrels of toxic waste into an abandoned coal mine on the outskirts of a small eastern Kentucky township? Why, Steven Seagal, of course!

As with most rich egotistical pricks in Hollywood, Seagal knows how to lovingly soothe the neverending plight of the common man, the blue-collar schmo with a lump of mossy coal where his brain should be. Like a pony-tailed preacher dressed in expensive leather, Seagal spoke often of the dangers infecting the very soil we trod upon during the late '90s.

Did anyone listen? Nope. They were too busy watching the chunky aikido master bash evil-doers about the neck and face with everything from large pieces of wood to whatever happened to be lying around the set at the time. Had Jesus been trained in the ways of martial arts, he may have looked a lot like Steven Seagal. Assuming, of course, that Jesus wasn't a student of Miyagi's.

1997's Fire Down Below marked the second eco-friendly vehicle for our bluesy action hero. Though not nearly as heavy-handed and preachy as 1994's On Deadly Ground, this man-versus-corruption yarn is easily the more entertaining of the two. How could this be, you ask? Well, instead of portraying a pompous prick with a propensity for breaking the bones of those who stand in the way of his environmental agenda, Seagal actually plays a man you wouldn't mind having a drink with. Granted, he's still a know-it-all with a gun and the ability to snap your wrist like a twig, but the guy is so impossibly nice that you just couldn't hold it against him. After all, if Steven's taking time out of his busy schedule to cause you fierce bodily harm, chances are you had it coming. Sorry about your luck.

Seagal stars as Jack Taggert, an unstoppable EPA agent who rambles into the hills of eastern Kentucky to investigate the death of his partner. Disguised as a "servant of God" dressed in tacky designer clothes, Taggert helps the impoverished residents of Jackson fix up their homes while quizzing them in-depth about the various shenanigans taking place around the county.

This, of course, irritates the local thug population quite a bit, including the son of a wealthy bastard named Orin Hanner. As Taggert begins to unearth some truly disturbing facts about the local ecosystem, Hanner's men move in for the kill. They talk big, beat up an old man, and try their best to one-up the dude they believe to be a threat to their cozy way of life. Can Jack find a reliable witness to testify against the man who helped poison the bluegrass, or will our hero roast in the toxic fires that burn beneath his very feet?

I vividly remember when this production rolled in my neck of the woods. As a lifelong Kentuckian who fought hard to ditch his lazy southern accent, I groaned all over town about how this would be yet another exploitative Hollywood picture that painted the Bluegrass State as the redneck capital of the world. I shook my finger at the local paper, ranted unspeakable rants at the nightly news, and stomped my angry little feet in protest. Since the filmmakers were using what I considered to be slack-jawed yokels to pepper their offensive project, I figured this would be yet another step backwards for a state that already takes too much flack from those self-important west coast hillbillies who are just as stupid and confused about how the southern states operate as some Appalachian residents are regarding most big-city activities.

In other words, I didn't expect to enjoy Fire Down Below, so I didn't bother catching the film during its theatrical run. Instead, I opted to watch Taggert battle rednecks in the comfort of my own home, where I could mouth off and complain without anyone else hearing me whine like a loose cheerleader with a particularly painful STD. Much to my surprise, Seagal's Kentucky fried action-adventure is actually a pretty decent picture, one that doesn't linger too long on stereotypes, cliches, or heavy-handed eco-babble. Sure, he does drop a Deliverance quote and waltzes into a church to deliver a sermon about the dangers of toxic waste, but it's all pretty tame compared to the overlong soliloquy found at the tail end of On Deadly Ground.

After salvaging this flick from a local dump bin and nursing it back to health with bottled breast milk containing electrolytes, I was even more surprised to discover that I enjoy it as much today as I did, oh, eight years ago. The story really isn't anything to write home about — just one man's mission to overthrow some rich prick's toxic empire — and the acting isn't on par with some of Seagal's earlier endeavors, but it's still an entertaining five-dollar purchase and a great way to kill 90 minutes on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I'm not kidding, either; as I sit at my laptop with a slice of pizza gurgling in my bowels, my electronic calendar reads Sunday and a light rain is gently beating a steady tattoo against my picture window. How nauseatingly serene.

Like other Seagal vehicles, the film is basically an excuse for our favorite chubby aikido wizard to pummel a variety of moronic goons into submission. There are dozens of cattle just ripe for the proverbial slaughter in Fire Down Below, including but not limited to bodyguards, redneck bad asses, corrupt cops, and an incestuous Stephen Lang. There's also a pretty nifty car chase about halfway through the film that ends with an oh-so-satisfying crash down the side of a strip-mined mountain. The fights aren't nearly as brutal or uncompromising as those found in Out for Justice, mind you, but they're thrilling in their own special way. I highly recommend downing a can of Seagal's patented energy drink Lightning Bolt before viewing this picture. It helps matters considerably, or so I've been told.

Is Fire Down Below the best thing our hero has ever done? Nope. Is it a good movie? Kind of. It's as good as Marked for Death or Hard to Kill, and it certainly snaps the wrist of anything he's done since Exit Wounds. Watching Harry Dean Stanton match wits with Seagal is good for a laugh or two, and the fight scenes are above average for this kind of agenda-driven nonsense. As long as you approach the film in the right mindset, chances are you'll have a foot-tappin', banjo-pickin' good time with with Fire Down Below. I'm not sure what other Kentuckians think about this production, but I'm of the belief that it portrays the fine folks of this great state in a positive light.

Minus that whole incest bit, of course.

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