"Firestorm" is a half baked B movie designed to launch Howie Long -- former NFL star and current Fox Sports commentator -- as the next action hero.

“Firestorm” is a half baked B movie designed to launch Howie Long — former NFL star and current Fox Sports commentator — as the next action hero. Despite generic plotting and ho hum execution, pic might generate a slight B.O. sizzle during its opening weekend, considering the lack of similar product in the marketplace. After that, however, expect a quick flame out. Ancillary prospects are only slightly brighter.

After warming up with a supporting part in John Woo’s “Broken Arrow,” Long tackles his first leading role as Jesse Graves, a second generation Wyoming firefighter who heads an elite team of “smokejumpers” — men and women who parachute into forest blazes when all other access is cut off. Opening sequence establishes Jesse as a fearless, gung ho professional who readily risks his life to save a little girl (and, of course, her cute dog) trapped in a cabin surrounded by fire. Wynt (Scott Glenn), Jesse’s mentor, is injured during the rescue effort, prompting his eventual decision to retire from smokejumping when the story picks up a year later.

In a nearby penitentiary, convicted killer Earl Shaye (William Forsythe) hatches an audacious plan to break free and recover $37 million in stashed loot. With cold-blooded efficiency, he eliminates a fellow prisoner, then takes the victim’s place in a group of convicts conscripted to help fight a forest fire — a fire, it should be noted, that Shaye’s lawyer arranged to be set by hiring expert help.Shaye and four fellow prisoners make their escape, posing as visiting Canadian firefighters (Forsythe’s attempt at a Canadian accent indicates that Bob and Doug McKenzie of “SCTV” may have a long lost brother). Once away from the fire, they will divide Shaye’s loot. Naturally, unexpected complications arise.

Wynt, who has returned from retirement to help battle the blaze, discovers that an escape is in progress. Meanwhile, Shaye and his confederates come across Jennifer (Suzy Amis), an ornithologist who was photographing birds when the fire broke out, and they offer to guide her to safety. And then along comes Jesse, parachuting into the forest.

But the bad guys aren’t the only thing to worry about. Sooner or later, the winds will cause the collision of the original fire and the backfire set by firefighters, creating a firestorm that will devastate anyone unlucky enough to be in the vicinity.

Oscar winning cinematographer Dean Semler makes an inauspicious directorial debut working with Chris Soth’s predictable and colorless screenplay. Pic is notably lacking in suspense, and even a chase sequence involving a truck, a motorcycle and a well aimed chain saw is less than thrilling. Although pared down to 89 minutes, “Firestorm” seems sluggish and unduly protracted.

As Jesse, the aptly rugged Long speaks his lines with foursquare conviction, and looks at ease in firefighting gear. But he lacks sufficient camera presence to make his thin character very interesting. And it doesn’t help that he hasn’t been given any clever lines to reveal a sense of humor.

Almost by default, Forsythe dominates the pic with his potent mix of beguiling politeness, soft spoken menace and, occasionally, bug eyed psychosis. Amis brings a welcome touch of feisty resourcefulness to a role that, thanks to her, is far more substantial than a standard issue damsel in distress. As Wynt, Glenn has comparatively little to do, but does it well enough to give his one dimensional part at least a shading or two of character.

On a tech level, “Firestorm” is generally impressive, though sharp eyed audiences will immediately spot which fire sequences have been “enhanced” by the special effects crew. One clever touch: When the big blaze is initially set, the ignition is underscored with David Bowie’s rendition of the theme from Paul Schrader’s “Cat People.” The payoff comes as Bowie sings: “I’ve been putting out fires with gasoline.”

Firestorm

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Loeb/Weisman production. Produced by Joseph Loeb III, Matthew Weisman, Thomas M. Hammel. Executive producer, Louise Rosner. Co producer, Douglas C. Metzger. Directed by Dean Semler. Screenplay, Chris Soth.

With

Jesse Graves - Howie Long Wynt Perkins - Scott Glenn Earl Shaye - William Forsythe Jennifer - Suzy Amis Monica - Christianne Hirt Pete - Garwin Sanford Cowboy - Sebastian Spence Andy - Michael Greyeyes Packer - Barry Pepper Karge - Vladimir Kulich Loomis - Tom McBeath Wilkins - Benjamin Ratner Sherman - Jonathon Young
Camera (Deluxe color), Stephen F. Windon; editor, Jack Hofstra; music, J. Peter Robinson; production design, Richard Paris, Linda Del Rosario; sound (Dolby Digital), David Husby; stunt coordinators, Glenn Wilder, Ken Kirzinger; special effects coordinator, Chris Corbould; assistant director, Doug Metzger; second unit director, Glenn Wilder; second unit camera, John Stokes; casting, Allison Gordon Kohler. Reviewed at Cinemark Tinseltown Westchase, Houston, Jan. 6, 1997. MPAA rating: R. Running time: 89 MIN.
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