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Steven Seagal's latest outing gives Zak some Fire Down Below.

By Zak Weisfeld

SEPTEMBER 15, 1997:  Egotism, megalomania, delusions of grandeur--all of these are common ailments in the magical land of Hollywood. In rare cases, this kind of behavior can lead to truly incredible filmmaking, but in most cases it just leads to bloated crap like Fire Down Below. Or bloated crap like Steven Seagal.

Not that Seagal is all alone out there on the Coast. But of the entire monstrous gallery of arrogant, overpaid thugs who populate the world of action cinema, none is more repellent than Seagal. Even the slack-faced, $20 million-a-movie Sylvester Stallone has the common decency to at least look like he's an action hero. Hell, a billionaire fascist punk like Schwarzen-egger must spend four or five hours a day in the gym--which almost seems like working for a living. Seagal looks like he could barely haul his fat ass off the sofa for a donut.

Which, strangely, is Seagal's only remotely redeeming feature--just the sheer unlikeliness of him. Here is a beady-eyed, lisping, pudgy, middle-aged man in a pony tail and leather coat (apparently Seagal hasn't yet received the memo about the end of the '80s) whuppin' on some hillbillies in a lumber yard. What's not to love? And if Seagal wasn't so humorless and painfully full of himself (or full of something anyway), or put in even the slightest effort to make a decent movie, I might be able to find it in my heart to enjoy him. But he doesn't, and I can't.

Which brings us to the mystical land of Appalachia. That's right--fresh from rescuing and patronizing the hapless Eskimo victims of big oil, Seagal has come on down to the hills and hollers of Kentucky to save and patronize the hapless hillbilly victims of Kris Kristopher-son's toxic waste... or maybe just to wear ever more peculiar coats and play guitar.

By and large, Fire Down Below is the story of EPA Marshal (Are there EPA Marshals? Does it matter?) Jack Taggart and his never-ending quest to rid the world of toxic waste. Which is a noble aim and hard to argue with, except that it's Steven Seagal. It seems an agent friend of Jack's was going hunting and almost got crushed by some barrels of toxic waste, but then somebody killed him and made it look like an accident--except that it wasn't.

Steven Seagal, pickin' and grinnin' and makin' an ass of himself.
Regardless, Seagal rolls into some hick town in Kentucky where the kids are probably all high on glue and Satanism. Except that in this hick town, all the kids have weird rashes from the "deadly highly toxic waste" that lurks in the abandoned coal mines. Problem is, the EPA needs a witness to the toxic dumping and none of the aforementioned hillbillies will talk. So Seagal must befriend them and gain their trust before he takes on the head bad guys.

This premise leads to some of the most bizarre and exhilarating juxtapositions in recent movie memory. For some reason Seagal, like James Bond riding through the desert in a tuxedo, refuses to alter his attire or appearance in any way, regardless of his environment. So, beyond the simple yet entertaining game of "Which leather jacket will he wear next?" moviegoers are treated to the vision of Steven Seagal stepping from the cab of an old Dodge pickup in the front yard of a shotgun shack looking like a bewildered Baltimore pimp who missed his exit by 300 miles. Or battling his way through a cave full of glowing, green toxic waste in some kind of black muumuu or maternity shirt. I won't even go into the guitar playing.

And if Fire Down Below's initial premise is shaky, the rest of the movie's plot holes, inaccuracies, inconsistencies, glitches, screw-ups, and general stupidity would leave you gasping--if the whole thing weren't so mind-bendingly boring. Luckily, Fire Down Below does have Harry Dean Stanton playing Billy Bob Thornton. And, wouldn't you know it, it's got incest, too--see, there's this one girl in the town who looks like a Hollywood movie actress instead of a WPA photo essay subject and Segal falls for her... except!!! Hell buddy, that's right, genu-ine brother/sister incest.

Now a lot of you hillbillies out there reading this are probably a little offended by Seagal. But just imagine how the Eskimos felt, or the Colombian drug dealers, or the Mob in Seagal's earlier offenses. The truth is, I was offended by Fire Down Below, and I'm a damned carpetbagger. But I wasn't offended by any condescension or inaccurate portrayal of the region and its culture. I'm offended that anyone would put in the time and money and effort it takes to produce a feature film and devote all that effort to making a merciless piece of crap like Fire Down Below. And I was even more offended that I would be stupid enough to spend actual US dollars to see it. Don't make the same mistake. Stay home and watch Walker, Texas Ranger, or find reruns of Kung Fu.

But if you're desperate for a good movie with some regional condescension, go see Box of Moonlight, and if you're looking to see some ass whupped, go out and rent a Jackie Chan movie--and be offended by his portrayal of Arabs, Russians, and mainland Chinese.

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