Firestorm - * 1/2*

You always have to be careful with the first official studio release out of the gate each year. They’re obviously films for which the studios have no great hopes (having missed both the deadline for Academy Award eligibility and the big box-office holiday season). Combine that with Howie Long’s first starring action role, and you’ve got a doozy of a movie that, while not as bad as it could have been, isn’t a very good film.

Howie stars as an ace smokejumper (a firefighter who parachutes into forest fires unreachable from the ground). In the slightly contrived opening scenes, we witness his heroism in action, as he, and his mentor (played by Scott Glenn) attempt to rescue a small girl and her dog from an oncoming forest fire.

William Forsythe plays the bad guy, a mass murderer who has several million dollars tucked away to help fund his jailbreak. He (and five convict cohorts) manages to get selected for firefighting duty when a woodland blaze just happens to ignite nearby. His escape plan bets a lot on the laxity of the guards, but (since there must be a movie) luck is with him. Soon the now-escaped convicts are masquerading as Canadian firefighters. Why Canadian? Who knows, eh? Along the way they pick up a pretty birdwatcher (Suzy Amis) to be their hostage.

Enter Howie Long. He’s called in to help fight the blaze, and when he spots the group of “ground pounders”, apparently lost, he parachutes in to help. When he discovers their true identity, he is the only thing standing between them and escape, and the only hope of help for the hostage.

Long’s acting talents are above those of, say, Steven Seagal, but not by much. Although his delivery is mostly flat and wooden, he’s a likeable hero, and there are some hints here and there that he may get better.

The script doesn’t help him out any, however. All too often, it veers into the realm of the unintentionally funny. The dialogue is strictly B-movie material, and the plotting relies too heavily on coincidences to be believable.

Long’s co-stars are a mixed bag. At least they’re all comfortable in their respective roles. Forsythe has the scenery-chewing villain down cold, down cold, and Scott Glenn is always enjoyable to watch, even when he doesn’t seem to be stretching his talents (as is definitely the case here). Suzy Amis plays peril pretty well, but isn’t given much more to do.

Some of the nature and wildfire shots are interesting, but many are rather bland. You’d think that the director, Dean Semler, a former cinematographer, would at least produce a film with interesting visuals. That’s not the case. There’s a lack of originality to nearly all the sequences…we’ve seen this stuff before.

It’s not the most auspicious start to 1998, but it could have been worse (just think back to 1996’s debut, Bio-Dome). However, after a month of Oscar-caliber pictures, a movie like Firestorm at least gives you some perspective on how good those movies really were. In fact, there’s a good chance that some of them are still playing near you…

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