At first I was hesitant to use “Firestorm” as a subject for this column because it stars former football player Howie Long, and I was pretty sure I already did a Howie Long movie, and I don’t want to overdo the minor sub-genre of Action Movies Starring People Who Used to Play Football, not when I still have so much untapped Van Damme to work through. But then I discovered that the movie I was thinking of, “Stone Cold,” starred Brian Bosworth, not Howie Long. Evidently they are two entirely different people. In my defense, all football players look alike to me.
So “Firestorm” it is! “Firestorm” is based on the premise that if two things are awesome separately, putting them together will be exponentially more awesome. That’s how they came up with the biathlon, where you ski for a while and then fire guns at things. In “Firestorm”, the combination is fighting fires (YEAH!) and skydiving (EFF YEAH!!). You see, sometimes there are blazes in remote parts of the forests where nature did not create roads on which to drive fire trucks, and the only way to get firemen there is to drop them from airplanes. The people who do this are called smokejumpers, and the movie tells us that in the U.S. there are only 300 men and women awesome enough to be trained in this art. Of course, firefighters who are delivered via parachute can only do so much once they arrive — it’s not like they can bring hoses and hydrants with them — so maybe that’s why there aren’t very many of them.
Howie Long (who I’m told played professional American football for many years with a troupe called “the Raiders”) stars as Jesse, one of these elite smokejumpers. He works in Wyoming, a state that is prone to catching fire because one, it’s made entirely of kindling, and two, nobody cares what happens to it. His grizzled mentor, Wynt Perkins (Scott Glenn), was injured in the line of duty a year ago, so now Jesse has taken over as commander of this squad of smokejumpers. The main team consists of himself, a guy called Cowboy, a woman called Monica, and a guy who isn’t called anything, I don’t think. Just some guy. He doesn’t matter. None of them matter.
Who matters is a psycho killer named Randall Alexander Shaye! You see, it is not enough for Smokejumper Jesse to combat fires while skydiving. That would be boring. Jesse must prove his heroism by fighting fires AND catching murderers AND skydiving! Played by the oil-based William Forsythe, Shaye is currently residing in the Wyoming State Penitentiary, but he has a plan for escape. The plan is not at all elaborate, complicated, implausible, or doomed to fail.
Here is Shaye’s plan:
He’s going to have someone on the outside start a fire in the nearby forest. How will that help? Well, when there’s a big fire and not enough money to pay people to put it out, they’ll use inmates as unpaid, untrained firefighters, because hey, why not? Only prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes are allowed this privilege; Shaye, having stolen several million dollars and killed a dozen people, is not permitted on fire duty. So what he’ll have to do, obviously, is kill one of the approved inmates and disguise himself to look like him enough to fool the guards. Once he’s out digging holes around the fire, or whatever it is that unpaid, untrained firefighters do, he can escape. THIS WILL BE EASY AS PIE.
If Shaye is really keen on the fire thing, why not have someone start a fire at the prison, then escape during the evacuation? That’s what I will do, when I’m in prison.
I kid Shaye for his plan’s complexity and the improbability of its success, but it actually works pretty well for him. Maybe Shaye has seen a lot of these movies, too. He has no trouble at all obtaining a razor and scissors with which to shave his beard and cut his hair, and dye with which to turn his hair the right shade of black. None of this is surprising, as men convicted of first-degree murder who are in solitary confinement in maximum-security facilities generally have ready access to implements of cosmetology. He also finds it very easy to get himself alone with his victim, stab him in the neck with a pen, hide his body, and steal his identity. One starts to wonder why an escape plan was needed at all when getting out of this prison is surely as easy as walking out the front door.
As planned, Shaye gets on a prison bus bound for the forest, helpfully set ablaze by Shaye’s accomplice. Several other convicts have been enlisted to help him escape, in exchange for getting a cut of the money he has stashed somewhere. Unlike Shaye, these men have NOT seen very many movies like this, or they would know that Shaye is going to kill them one at a time rather than split the cash with them. This, too, is what I will do when I find myself in this situation. I’m getting a lot of good ideas here.
Shaye and his soon-to-be-murdered cohorts succeed in seizing the guns from the guards who are overseeing their work. They lock the guards and the other prisoners in the prison bus, to be consumed by flames, then hightail it into the woods. They’re headed for a lake where there’s a boat waiting to take them to Canada. Evidently Shaye is so meticulous that he has even arranged for Montana to be moved out of the way.
Meanwhile, there is a birdwatcher named Jennifer who is watching birds in the forest when the fire starts. She runs into the four convicts, who are now dressed as firefighters, and joins them as they head for safety, unaware that they are convicts and that she is actually their hostage, which I guess makes the whole hostage experience a lot more pleasant. The men have decided, for some reason, to pose as Canadian firefighters, sent across the border into Wyoming (SUCK IT, MONTANA) to help with the blaze, and they even adopt Canadian accents to help with the ruse. What they don’t realize is that there is no such thing as a Canadian firefighter, on account of it is too cold for fires to start there. That is a fact.
But back to Jesse the smokejumper! Leaving Cowboy, Woman, and Other Guy at the station, he goes out with Helicopter Pilot to survey the scene. From the air, he uses a fireball-shooting gun (YEAH!) to start a separate fire that will somehow help them put out the main fire. It’s a good fire, you see, and it will thwart the bad fire, because they will fight with each other. This is basic science. Jesse enjoys setting fires, of course, as do all firemen, but you can tell he’s really itchin’ to do some smokejumping. He sees the four convicts and their oblivious hostage trudging through the woods and figures they’re lost. That’s all the excuse he needs, even though he’s supposed to smokejump from a special plane, not the surveillance helicopter.
“You are not jumping out of this helicopter!” declares Helicopter Pilot.
“You’re right,” Jesse says. “It’s more like falling.”
YEAH! Jesse is an inspiration to everyone who has ever struggled against the restrictions placed upon them by trained professionals concerned for their safety.
Jesse leads the faux-Canadians and the birdwatcher to an old ranger station where there’s a telephone that he can use to call Cowboy, Woman, and Other Guy and update them. This is where Shaye drops the facade and orders one of his cohorts to kill Jesse, which enables Howie Long to be in a fight, which is what Howie Long came here for in the first place. Howie Long has been stuck doing a lot of “acting” up to this point, and not enough butt-kicking. (He’s about as good an actor as Ian McKellen is a football player.)
Jesse evades the killer and escapes from the burning ranger station (Shaye set it on fire) by riding a motorcycle up a ramp and through the roof, for awesomeness, whereupon he rescues Jennifer and has her drive the motorcycle while he throws a chainsaw (Jesse has a chainsaw) at the bad guys, who are now chasing them in a van (the bad guys have a van), and then the motorcycle goes over a cliff, for more awesomeness, but it’s OK because Jesse is wearing a parachute and Jennifer, well, hopefully she’ll hang on to him or something.
Like most movies designed solely for the purpose of letting one person show off his action-star skills, “Firestorm” has no use for anyone who isn’t the star or the villain. It also has no use, apparently, for fire-related special effects in which the flames don’t appear to have been rendered using MS Paint. Howie Long, the good-natured lunk, bless his heart, wasn’t cut out for this, and it proved to be his only starring vehicle. He did go on to have a successful career standing next to Teri Hatcher in Radio Shack commercials, though, which is more than you can say for Brian Bosworth.