Fire Down Below

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"The best Steven Seagal film since Under Siege!" That blurb tops the ads for Fire Down Below; it will either make people want to see Seagal's new movie or else have them rolling their eyes in ironic disdain. If you find yourself tending more toward response number two, it might be worth holding off on the eye roll because in terms of cultural work -- the way art reveals the submerged categories that organize our thinking and feeling -- there's more going on here than a presumptive condescension might allow.

Not to mention the fact that this is the best Seagal movie since Under Siege, which was a masterpiece of its kind, that kind being a hybrid of martial arts combat and kick-ass action drama, inflected with enough conspiracy theory to provide some interesting villains.

This time out, Seagal is an EPA agent called to rural Kentucky to investigate surreptitious toxic dumping. As to what makes this film work: first, the casting is brilliant, with Harry Dean Stanton as Appalachian Yoda, Kris Kristofferson as hometown boy turned evil tycoon and Marg Helgenberger as a good woman wronged, who also becomes Seagal's love interest. The supporting cast, playing mostly low-life hillbillies and corrupt cops, is a minor Who's Who of country music artists. There's not a weak performance anywhere.

The screenplay (by Jeb Stuart and Philip Morton) is by parts funny and smart and self-reflexively hip (ditto the strong musical score). The camera work (Tom Houghton) is economical and even lyrical. The directing (Felix Enriquez Alcala) and editing (Robert A. Ferretti) are everything action fans could hope for.

In sum, this is a deeply satisfying picture, provided you grant its donnée (or starting premise), as Henry James might have said: the premise that cartoons (of the Eastwood/Bronson/Seagal kind) needn't be realistic to be true. This deft cartoon has a lot to say about the vexed truths we'd like to believe, about politics and blame and goodness. Its wish-fulfilling pleasures are ripe with potential self-recognition. "When was the last time I gave you nothing?" Seagal asks his boss. Certainly not here.

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