Fire Down Below might just be the most laidback Steven Seagal movie I’ve seen, and I mean that as a compliment. Many of his seemingly endless outings are obnoxious inner city bang ups, special forces hootenannies or high concept martial arts pageants, but here is a simple, down to earth, rural Kentucky set tale of one tough Fed helping out a small town of disadvantaged folks battle corporate corruption and deeds most foul. An unscrupulous company has been dumping toxic waste into a town’s water supply, lighting the canyons on fire and being a general nuisance in the region, but they really step out of line when they kill Seagal’s research partner and he’s dispatched to investigate by his agency handler (Richard Masur in the quickest cameo I’ve seen in a while). He spends the rest of the film meandering around a backwater county, making friends, getting cozy with a troubled local beekeeper (Marg Helgenberger, ditching the swanky CSI leather for a country girl’s dress) and eventually beating the shit out of underlines who work for powerful industrialist CEO Kris Kristofferson, who spends most of the film elsewhere in the big city ogling dancers at some casino. The one who does make the most trouble for Steven is Helgenberger’s pervy, volatile, very mentally unstable brother played with a high strung psychopathic flourish by Stephen Lang. Others include The Band’s Levon Helm as the local priest, Brad Hunt, Mark Collie, John Diehl, Randy Travis, country singers Alex Harvey & Marty Stuart and the great Harry Dean Stanton, giving the film’s only truly good performance as a simple local guy who gets caught up in the whole mess. This is a low key thing, the action comes in quick jolts and there’s a kickass canyon car chase with giant trucks but a lot of it is just hazy small town hangin’ our, which is fine too. There’s some great music too sung by the numerous professional musicians in the cast and briefly by Stanton himself. The main thing the film has going for it is a hilarious script by Jeb Stuart, who wrote classics like Die Hard and The Fugitive. He pens some precious one-liners here and I have to give a few quick examples because they are priceless: Kristofferson’s son asks pops if he wants him to ‘take Seagal out,’ and Kris dryly retorts: “You couldn’t take out a cheeseburger from a drive-thru window.” Another instance sees some poor fool try and threaten Steven with: “I’m gonna slap you like a red-headed step child!” Amazing stuff.
Shoot To Kill (aka Deadly Pursuit) is a spectacularly suspenseful, beautifully scenic thriller that knows how to stage action set pieces like nobody’s business. It’s also famous for the return of Sydney Poitier to acting after a near decade long hiatus, but that aside it’s just a crackling great film on its own. Part adventure, part chase flick, part psycho thriller, it could even serve as a nature documentary for all the breathtaking shots of Canadian Pacific Northwest wilderness. Poitier plays a big city cop who is on the trail of a homicidal, hellbent jewel thief who has covered his tracks by disappearing amongst a team of hikers venturing out into the mountains. Poitier is obligated to use the services of expert mountain man Tom Berenger to find the party before things inevitably get violent, and take down the maniac for good. He has his own stake in it as his girlfriend (Kirstie Alley) is the group’s guide. It’s a tense guessing game to see which one of the hikers eventually reveals himself as the killer, and since they’re all played by hard-cases like Richard Masur, Clancy Brown and Andy Robinson, it’s a gleeful toss up. Poitier and Berenger naturally butt heads, and it’s funny to see the straight city slicker and gruff outdoorsman archetypes clash. They pursue the killer up the Oregon belt and into the Cascade Mountains, eventually arriving in my hometown of Vancouver which actually gets to play itself for once instead of doubling for some yankee burg. This one holds up great and hasn’t lost a bit of its edge in the years since it came out. Tough, rugged, brutal but gorgeous piece of large scale thriller cinema.
Who’ll Stop The Rain is a sadly forgotten Nam era film that deftly blends genre better than most movies can ever hope to. The level of quality ratio to the amount of people who remember it is criminally unbalanced, but that’s commonplace in cinema. The title comes from the Creedence Clearwater Revival song of the same name, serving as both a metaphor in itself and a theme for the film, an anti war outcry that warbles forth beautifully at least five different times during the movie, becoming the script’s national anthem. Plus,who can say no to CCR on loop. It’s actually one of the best and most fervent anti war films out there, showing you an extended look at just how many ways the Vietnam War followed soldiers home and infected many customs, institutions and individuals. That kind of important sentiment wrapped up in a thriller is the kind of package I strive to find in film, and this is a glowing example. Nick Nolte plays Ray Hicks, an american GI getting ready to head back stateside after a tour. His best buddy John Converse (Michael Moriarty) convinces him to smuggle a brick of hash back with him and deliver it to his wife (Tuesday Weld). Only problem is, that ain’t where it ends. The people John was in contact with turn out to be a dodgy bunch, and before Ray knows it he’s o the run from some very dangerous dudes with his best buddy’s wife in tow, headed straight for a violent confrontation via a slow burn of a plot that sits on a low boil before you realized it’s reached a fever pitch. Nolte and Weld are a corrosive romantic couple, making the downbeat best of their situation, evading two nasty drug runners (Anthony Zerbe and Richard Masur being scary and classy as fuck) and getting a feel for each other along the way. Thriller. Drama. War. Moral dilemma. This one’s got it all, in a very specific concoction that never forces anything and treats you to more than it ever promised, before you have the chance to realize it. All timer stuff.
The 1980s was quite a prolific decade for actor Kurt Russell. Sprinkled between the genre classics he made with director John Carpenter, the actor tried his hand at a wide variety of roles, from shifty used car salesman in the comedy Used Cars (1980) to a nuclear power plant worker in the docudrama Silkwood (1983) to a police detective in the neo-noir Tequila Sunrise (1988). Often forgotten during this busy decade is a nifty little thriller called The Mean Season (1985). Based on the bestselling 1982 novel In the Heat of the Summer by John Katzenbach, this well-executed film acts as the cinematic equivalent of an engrossing page turner.
Set in Miami during the hot, late summer months, the film opens with an urgent brassy score by the great Lalo Schifrin that plays over shots of stormy skies juxtaposed with the busy printing presses of the Miami Journal, foreshadowing how both will play a prominent role later on. Malcolm Anderson (Kurt Russell) is a veteran crime reporter that has just come back from hiatus/job hunting in Colorado. He’s burnt out, lacking both ambition and drive. He wants a change of pace and threatens to quite… again. But before he can bring it up, Bill Nolan (Richard Masur), his editor, assigns him to cover the murder of a young woman that has been shot in the head.
The crime scene sequence speaks volumes about Malcolm’s character. He’s covered the beat long enough to be on friendly terms with homicide detective Ray Martinez (Andy Garcia) but not his partner Phil Wilson (Richard Bradford). He also knows how to get the guy who found the body to open up and talk then has the decency not to use the man’s name in the article. Malcolm is also tactful and understanding with the mother of the murder victim, listening to the woman’s reminisces about her child while still getting what he needs for the article. This is in contrast to Andy Porter (Joe Pantoliano), the crime photographer who shadows Malcolm on his assignments and has no problem taking a picture of the grieving parent during a particularly vulnerable moment. This scene is important because it establishes that Malcolm is good at what he does and he is a decent person so we like and identify with him.
Malcolm finally confronts Bill about his desire to quit in a scene between veteran character actor Richard Masur and Russell. Bill tells Malcolm, “You haven’t been at this long enough to be as burned out as you like to think you are.” Malcolm feels like he’s seen and done it all but still hasn’t found his Watergate yet – the dream of all ambitious investigative reporters. Malcolm sums it up best when he tells Bill, “I don’t want to see my name in the paper next to pictures of dead bodies anymore.” The editor counters, “Now we’re not the manufacturer, we retail. News gets made somewhere else, we just sell it.” It’s a nice scene that is well-played by both actors as their characters touch on the nature of ethics in reporting the news. How far are they willing to go to get a story that makes their career? Malcolm is about to find out as he gets a phone call from the man (Richard Jordan) that killed the teenage girl. He admires Malcolm’s writing and wants the reporter to be his mouthpiece as he plans to kill again.
Bill is practically salivating at the possibilities while Malcolm’s ambition kicks in as he realizes that he’s found his Watergate. However, as the murders continue, Malcolm finds himself getting more involved in the story until he’s as much a part of it as the killer, which puts his life and that of his girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway) in danger.
While the set-up and plot of The Mean Season are nothing special – the reporter who gets in way over his head – both are executed well enough that you don’t mind and this is due in large part to the engaging performances of the talented cast that do their best to sell the material. Kurt Russell certainly comes across as a believable newsman. He’s got the lingo down and seems to know his way around the newsroom and the beat that Malcolm covers. The actor does a nice job of conveying his character’s transition from someone reporting on the news to the one making it. He also manages to get a chance to show off some of his action chops in an exciting bit where Malcolm races across town to find his girlfriend before the killer does. His frantic, desperate race is intense because the actor knows how to sell it, running full tilt over several blocks like a man possessed, and because we know more than he does. We know just how much danger his girlfriend is in.
Mariel Hemingway is good in the thankless girlfriend role. She and Russell have good chemistry together. They make a nice couple together and her character ends up acting as the voice of reason when Malcolm gets too involved. Hemingway does her best to avoid the damsel in distress stereotype but it is pretty easy to figure out how it’s all going to go down. She is part of a solid supporting cast that includes Andy Garcia as the dedicated cop that cares and Richard Bradford (The Untouchables) as his older, more experienced partner who thinks that Malcolm is a parasite. The aforementioned Richard Masur (The Thing) is also memorable as the opportunistic editor who just cares about selling papers. The great William Smith (Darker than Amber) has a memorable bit part as a pivotal witness that helps Malcolm and the cops track down the killer. He has only one scene with a decent amount of expositional dialogue to convey but he nails it.
Director Phillip Borsos (The Grey Fox) also does a nice job orchestrating the cat and mouse game between Malcolm and the killer thanks to the smartly written screenplay by Leon Piedmont. They manage to hit all the right notes and fulfill all the right conventions of the thriller genre – the grudgingly helpful cops, the ambitious reporter, the sociopathic killer, and so on – and stir it all up. Borsos employs no-nonsense direction like a seasoned studio pro, which lets the actors do their thing. I also like how he conveys a sense of place with the sweaty, summer weather, coupled with the impending hurricane that is almost tangible. It all comes to a head at the exciting and atmospheric climax when Malcolm confronts the killer in the Everglades.
John Katzenbach was a veteran crime reporter who based his debut novel In the Heat of the Summer on years of experiences and that of his colleagues. Producer David Foster, a journalism graduate, had been looking for a good screenplay about reporters for years. He came across the manuscript for Katzenbach’s novel and was impressed by it. He met with the author and they talked about how to accurately convey the life of a newspaper reporter on film.
In April 1984, Borsos and his crew arrived at the Miami Herald offices to study a typical day in the newsroom and on that day Christopher Bernard Wilder, suspected of kidnapping and murdering several young women, shot himself as the police closed in. The resulting flurry of activity at the Herald helped Borsos create a realistic newsroom atmosphere in his film. Katzenbach urged Kurt Russell to hang out with his fellow reporters in preparation for the film. To that end, Russell and Joe Pantoliano accompanied a reporter and a photographer from the newspaper to the scene of a grisly double murder in North Miami. Much like in the film, the actor found cameras were trained on him and later saw footage of himself on the evening news. In addition, Richard Masur spent days and nights on the Herald’s city desk.
Borsos’ previous film The Grey Fox (1982) did not make a profit and so to pay off his debts he agreed to direct The Mean Season. Unfortunately, he had creative differences with Foster over the tone of the film. According to Borsos, he wanted the film to look “somewhat stylized and slightly unreal, more what you would call a 1950’s film-noir type of picture.” In contrast, Foster wanted a more realistic-looking film as Borsos said, “Mr. Foster’s vision was more of action-packed thriller instead of a character-thriller.” It also didn’t help that the director resented the producer’s constant presence on the set. The newsroom scenes were actually shot at the Miami Herald late at night with several staff members used as consultants and extras. Russell and two fellow actors used three real newsroom desks that were outfitted with authentic-looking notepads, books, dictionaries and computer printouts. In addition, Katzenbach was frequently present during filming and acted as a consultant.
The Mean Season is an entertaining film that falters a little bit at the end with a clichéd “twist” that sees Malcolm suddenly transform into an action hero but Russell does his best to make it work. At times, it feels like there are two kinds of films competing – the character-driven thriller that Borsos wanted to make and the action-packed thrill machine that Foster envisioned. The result is a sometimes uneven effort. Not every film has to try and reinvent the wheel by offering some novel take on the genre. There’s something to be said for a thriller that has nothing more on its mind then to entertain and tell a good story and that’s something The Mean Season delivers on both counts.