Fire Down Below” is typical action fare for martial arts star Steven Seagal and, in his limited oeuvre, one of the more entertaining efforts. But the genre is pedestrian, and Seagal makes no new moves here in terms of screen personality or acting skill. What fun there is lies in the villains, some nifty stunts and a bouncy musical score rife with regional sounds. Hardly a breakout on the order of “Under Siege,” his latest should generate typical midrange theatrical numbers and solid movement in ancillaries.
Somewhere in Kentucky’s hilly Appalachia region, thoughtless industrialists are dumping toxic waste. Only one man — environmental protection agent Jack Taggart (Seagal) — has the moxie to set right the balance of nature. The somewhat laughable premise has Taggart posing as a handyman to ferret out the perps who killed a fellow agent and are killing the local flora and fauna.
The problem is that the leather-clad, ponytailed do-gooder is a little too obvious to blend in, while the minions of businessman Orin Hanner (Kris Kristofferson) wear their evil intentions on their plaid cotton sleeves. So, after a few perfunctory attempts to conceal his real mission, Taggart decides to drop his guise and take on the local no-goodniks head to head.
Jeb Stuart’s screenplay (a onetime project for Bruce Willis at Columbia) is extremely predictable stuff, with Seagal dodging bullets, a big Mack attack that pushes him off the road and a smattering of brawls in colorful venues. He rarely works up a sweat, dispatching legions of thugs mainly with just his lethal arms and legs. The ease he displays robs the piece of even the most modest degree of tension. He’s a latter-day “Billy Jack” who wins not only all the fights but the affection of comely outcast Sarah Kellogg (Marg Helgenberger).
Tyro feature filmmaker Felix Enriquez Alcala has the good sense not to take the situation too seriously or dwell on the material’s more sober aspects. Pic’s mostly a series of action setups with a sprinkling of comic asides involving the goons, a local oddball played by Harry Dean Stanton, and Kristofferson eating up the scenery in a nonsinging role that nonetheless hits high C.
There’s also ample time for musical segues that reveal Seagal to be an able guitar picker as well as serving up country music star Marty Stuart, Stanton’s mellow styling and other lesser-known talents. There’s even a straight dramatic role for Randy Travis as a faux FBI agent.
“Fire Down Below,” which clearly bears no relation to the 1957 Rita Hayworth Columbia meller of the same name, is slick, shallow good-guy/bad-guy stuff interrupted from time to time with some ill-conceived sermonizing. It tries hard to generate heat but is actually no more substantive than a puff of smoke.