Does Robert De Niro presume to play free safety for the Jets? Can Denzel Washington slam dunk over Dikembe Mutombo?
Well, no. But if Dennis Rodman gets a notion to do King Lear, better break out the swords. Because ever since Sonja Henie and her skates signed with Darryl F. Zanuck, assorted agents, studio heads and marketeers have been transforming star athletes into movie actors--or trying to. Jim Brown. Joe Namath. Guy named O.J. Simpson. Heaven help us, even Brian Bosworth and Shaquille O'Neal.
The latest retooling project is Howie Long, erstwhile defensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders and current commentator for Fox NFL Sunday. Sorry, but we gotta flag him for unnecessary woodenness. In the big guy's first starring vehicle, he shows he was a lot better at knocking quarterbacks cold than he is at essaying the art dramatic.
Aside from Stephen F. Windon's beautiful and vivid cinematography, Firestorm is passable formula: cookie-cutter action fare about a raging forest fire, a murderous convict (William Forsythe) trying to escape through the flames and an ornithologist/hostage (Suzy Amis) who happens to know karate and is an expert marksperson. But mostly the picture is about trying to turn Howie Long into the next Schwarzenegger--a new slab of muscle who sweats unexpected soul and wit up there on the screen. The picture even forces the issue via indirect (if not subliminal) suggestion: As a sidekick bad guy named Karge, actor Vladimir Kulich sports an accent so Arnold-esque it's uncanny.
Tall order, chasing the Schwarz-man. Unless you're a stone Raider Hater with a long memory (really? You are?), there's no reason to dislike Mr. Long. But he's Mr. Short on both magnetism and talent. Here he impersonates one Jesse Graves, a dashing smoke jumper who parachutes straight into the scalding flames waving his ax, delivers Jennifer the endangered birdwatcher from evil (she helps, as any postmodern heroine must) and vanquishes Forsythe's demonic villain, who has stashed $37 million away and has a nasty habit of killing his own henchmen. Our Jesse, wouldn't you know, is not only a serious ass-kicker, he's also expert with a motorcycle and knows the Latin names for several species of birds. This duly impresses the lady of the piece and sets the stage for incipient romance.
Unfortunately, Long delivers his lines like a tight end suffering from a concussion. By comparison, Stallone may as well be Olivier, Van Damme the second coming of Brando. Looking at a huge mountainside of fire (this is Wyoming, we're told), Long declares: "We'll...have...to wait...for it...to burn out." Heard Dorothy Parker's old jape about the actress who commanded the entire range of emotion "from A to...B"? It's worth remembering here.
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Aside from its wooden star and a paint-by-numbers script (literally straight out of screenwriting class at USC) by newcomer Chris Soth, Firestorm ain't half bad, as your weekly action flick goes. First-time director Dean Semler was the cinematographer on such visually memorable movies as Dances With Wolves and The Road Warrior, and he's collaborated with cameraman Windon to produce some great effects here--sheets of flame engulfing a forest more dramatically than anything in Backdraft, the overheated silhouettes of men trudging through curtains of smoke, frantic explosions of every variety.
Forsythe's savory bad guy (he cackles softly as he throws guys off cliffs) and Long's sidekick hero (craggy Scott Glenn) also have their moments in the war between forest and flame and the one between good and evil. But as far as Howie Long goes, there's a lot of smoke but not much fire. Better to wait for Bridges of Madison County II, starring Mike Tyson.
Screenplay by Chris Soth. Directed by Dean Semler. With Howie Long, William Forsythe, Suzy Amis and Scott Glenn.