Action Heroes – Seagal: Fire Down Below

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: despite the title, Fire Down Below (1997) is not about sexually transmitted infections, although if Steven Seagal’s parents had not had sex it’s arguable that the world of straight-to-DVD releases would be much poorer.

Fire Down Below was made during Mr Seagal’s eco-warrior phase. Please, stop laughing: never before has Mother Nature had her honour defended with so much ass kicking and bluegrass music. Set in the Appalachian mountains, it begins with Mr Seagal using green screen technology to pilot a small plane through a breathtakingly beautiful wilderness. In sepia-toned flashbacks, we’re told that his character is an environmental protection agent and on his way to avenge – oh, I’m sorry, investigate – the mysterious murder of his friend in a small mining town where evil Kris Kristofferson’s evil company is disposing of toxic waste in the disused mine shafts. And really, what more environmentally friendly way to travel is there than by private plane?

On the soundtrack, some dude bellows over a steel guitar about a “copperhead sittin’ on a sycamore log”. If you don’t like country music and its associated genres, then Fire Down Below is going to go out of its way to alienate you. This is a film that cannot get to grips with the idea that not every scene requires some form of hootenanny on the soundtrack.

Aided by the town’s kindly preacher, Mr Seagal’s flimsy cover story is that he’s in town to help the locals rebuild their collapsing shacks, and, as a bonus, blow them all away with his awesome guitar chops. A sheriff in the pocket of the corporation warns Mr Seagal that he’s seen his kind before: “Drunks. Bums. Ex-cons. All tryin’ to atone for somethin’.” Or, as Mr Seagal serenely puts it, “I’m just here doing God’s work.” And you know what? The bastard probably believes it.

A couple of points here.

Firstly, no, I didn’t bother learning the name of Mr Seagal’s character. There was no point because Steven Seagal’s character is always Steven Seagal. This is why Steven Seagal is not a bad actor: to be a bad actor, first you need to try to act. You are not an actor if, in all of your roles, you have the same haircut, the same outfits (in fairness, at one point in this film Mr Seagal does sport a spectacularly ugly jacket with a bright, Aztec-style print) and the same narrow-eyed delivery of terrible/great dialogue, including this unintentionally flirtatious exchange:

Kristofferson: You’re violating my constitutional rights.
Seagal: I’ll show you a new meaning to the word ‘violation’.

Secondly, for a film in which Mr Seagal spends a great deal of time speechifyin’ about how the evil mining company is treatin’ the good people of this community like dumb hillbilly hicks, it spends a great deal of time depicting the people of the Appalachian mountains as dumb hillbilly hicks.

The notable exception to this rule is Mr Seagal’s putative love interest, Sarah (a pre-botox Marg Helgenberger). Sarah keeps bees and sells honey, which doesn’t bring her in much money on account of her having murdered her daddy when she was 16 and the townsfolk never having forgiven her for it. Within five minutes of meeting her Mr Seagal works out what the dumb hillbilly hicks haven’t been able to in nearly 20 years: Sarah’s brother killed their father when the old man worked out that Sarah’s brother had been molesting her. To make the point even clearer and more repellent, Sarah’s brother calls her a whore and promises her that after he’s killed Mr Seagal, “Things will go back to the way they were when daddy was alive.” Because, you know, that’s how men who live outside cities and don’t have a lot of money behave towards their sisters.

Faster than you can say “the perpetuation of grossly offensive stereotypes of the rural poor”, toothless thugs clad in dungarees and checked shirts are hiding venomous snakes in Mr Seagal’s bedroom, attempting to violently assault him in pool halls, and showing him the kind of cheerful small-town hospitality that consists of greeting strangers with “Fuck are you doin’ here, pretty boy?” The funniest thing about this is that even by the scrofulent standards of the locals, Mr Seagal is still not “pretty”.

A “hilarious” exchange in which Mr Seagal compares his would-be assailants to the supporting cast of Deliverance before beating them senseless only serves to remind viewers that they could be watching a much better film. At various other points, Mr Seagal threatens to shoot dead a sheriff’s deputy and hands a gun to a young boy with instructions on how to use it. Anywhere else in the world such behaviour would be considered sociopathic: in Fire Down Below this is the way the good guy gets shit done.

After a pretty decent pick-up vs Mac truck chase scene, set to Hendrix’s Little Wing for some reason, Mr Seagal storms back into town with a new and artfully placed cut on his cheekbone. He interrupts the preacher mid-sermon to literally preach to the townsfolk about their responsibilities to the environment and future generations. Presumably to prevent such a horrific instance of pulpit abuse from ever happening again, the church is later burned to the ground in scenes that will gladden the heart of any Norwegian black metal fan.

The film closes with the legendary Harry Dean Stanton wearing denim overalls, sitting on his new, Seagal-built porch and playing the guitar and singing. He’s pretty good, too. But this brief vignette is in no way a big enough dollop of ointment to soothe the itchy, irritating and lingering effects that come from wasting a couple of hours of your life on Fire Down Below.

Clare Moody

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