Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Firewalker (1986)

Letter openers are not what they used to be.  Today when you buy one or are “gifted” one by some benevolent corporate entity or what have you, you get a rounded off piece of plastic with a blade surrounded by more plastic.  For your protection.  Is it safe to use?  You bet, but it’s also damned boring to look at, and it has no sense of adventure to it.  Letter openers used to look like daggers.  The looked like something some magnificent bastard in a tailored suit would brandish at you from behind a three-foot-wide oak desk.  As I was growing up, we had several of these faux death implements around my house, one of which resembled the one discovered in J. Lee Thompson’s Firewalker.  It was curved, had an ornate (yet still chintzy) scabbard, everything but the jewel in the butt of the hilt.  Nobody that I know of was ever hurt by it, but it sure looked like it could do some damage, and it was fun to pretend you were a pirate or somesuch while running around with it.  Was this unsafe for a child to play with like it was a toy?  You bet, but it sure as shit wasn’t boring.

Max Donigan (Chuck Norris) and Leo Porter (Louis Gossett, Jr.) are two pro-am treasure hunters who have apparently never actually found any treasure but have found plenty of trouble.  Following their latest near-death experience, the guys are approached by the lovely Patricia Goodwin (Melody Anderson) to aid her in finding a hoard of Aztec/Mayan gold.  Meanwhile, El Coyote (Sonny Landham) is chasing after the team for the aforementioned sacrificial dagger, and he’s not above using magic to get it.

The Cannon Group produced Firewalker based on two criteria: the popularity of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’s Indiana Jones movies and the popularity of Norris, one of the studio’s golden goose stars (alongside Charles Bronson).  Like the big budget Paramount pictures, this is an adventure with a sense of humor (whether or not that humor works is entirely up to you; it was pretty flat for me), but it’s also tonally light (despite the sacrificial aspects and an attempted rape) to the point that it threatens to float away if even a mild wind should pass through wherever it is playing.  This is rather against type for Norris who had been a monosyllabic ass-kicker, taking down villains and winning the Vietnam War for America for a long time (and before stuff like Sidekicks and Top Dog).  Unlike the Harrison Ford character (who does stumble into situations bigger than himself quite often but essentially comes from a place of expertise that goes beyond his physical skills/struggles [he is a professor of archaeology after all]; Jones understands the history and meaning behind the artifacts he pursues), Max comes off as simply gormless.  He loves to spin yarns about the escapades he and Leo have gotten into and out of (even one involving Bigfoot; why couldn’t we get that movie?), but they feel capricious more than anything else.  Max (and by extension Leo) don’t have a plan, and they don’t really have any specialized knowledge that distinguishes them as remarkable.  They’re just like two college buddies who become constantly and unwittingly ensconced in wild goings on over an extended weekend of drinking.  Thus, they don’t really stand out as anything other than schlubs (Max’s martial arts skills notwithstanding).

The relationship between Leo and Max is an interesting one.  From the film’s outset, we’re lead to believe two things:  one, that they will be opposites in characterization (like The Odd Couple but in an adventure milieu), and two, that they will be equals.  Neither of these proves true.  Although the men bicker and argue over the situations they are in, I believe it’s fair to say that both got themselves screwed equally, so neither has any leg to stand on with regards to laying the blame at the other one’s feet.  Once they get to relaxing, they are incredibly similar as well.  Both find the same dumb things funny.  Both are more than happy to start and/or end a (obligatory) bar brawl.  Both have no clue what they’re doing and simply luck upon any positive things that happen in their lives.  Aside from having someone to talk to in public, they could easily be the same person.  

To the second point, Max is (unsurprisingly) the focus of the film’s story, and he is the alpha of the duo, so to speak.  Leo is more than content to follow Max around like a dog and do whatever Max wants to do.  He even admits as much to Patricia at one point.  Max gets to save everyone in the film and play the hero.  In fact, not only does he have to rescue Patricia, but he also has to save Leo’s bacon more than once.  Max catches Patricia’s eye right off the bat, and their romance is the only one in the film.  Leo never has a chance with her or any woman in the movie, despite the possibilities for some great scenes inherent in a triangular relationship (which this film doesn’t have).  As it happens, Leo is basically Max’s valet.  Everything he does is to support his white pal/master.   Combined with the portrayals of every other non-white and/or non-American character in the film, it paints a rather clear, mildly racist picture.  For example, the sadistic General (Richard Lee-Sung) is so cliché, he speaks in clichés (“So, gentlemen, we meet again”).  The Native American, Tall Eagle (Will Sampson), who helps the trio out, is the classic old shaman/chieftain who abides by the traditions of his people but has quirky, modern sensibilities (“I don’t know how Tonto did it”).  Central American soldiers drink while on duty and are insane with lust at the sight of a woman.  Intriguingly, Max’s old pal Corky (John Rhys-Davies) is white and a man of some power, but he is also an amalgam of Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnahan from Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King and Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (read: basically power hungry and more than slightly insane).  So, he is also an “other” from Max, but he is also what Max could easily become and soon.  That this isn’t explored more fully in the narrative is a failing, but I think it is also beside the point of the story.  However, coming as all of this does from the long tradition of pulp adventure stories, none of it comes off as particularly offensive, particularly when viewed in that light.  That doesn’t automatically make these facets palatable, but it does make them a bit more acceptable for the duration of the movie.

The Blu-ray from Olive Films presents the film in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the detail in the image is clear as a bell, accentuating Thompson’s mobile camerawork throughout (though it also needs mentioning that editor Richard Marx [I believe no relation to the singer/songwriter, but you never know] appears to either not know quite how to match many of these shots with one another or was given a jumble of disparate shots without the coverage to adequately tie them together; the world may never know).  The colors in the film are also very nicely displayed on the disc and the two combined make for a darn fine-looking visual package.  The HD 2.0 audio does an acceptable job mixing the dialogue, effects, and score (though the dialogue is less prominent than other elements on rare occasions, just not enough to ruin anything, and you’re likely not watching Firewalker for its dialogue, regardless.  The disc has no special features.     

MVT:  Despite the issues with their onscreen relationship, Norris and Gossett do have charm, and the pair have a certain chemistry together that works well enough for them.

Make or Break:  There’s a scene near the end that actually has some nice, tense action, and it involves one of my favorite action/adventure sights: people hanging over some perilous abyss/deathtrap/firestorm/anything.  So there’s that.

Score:  6.25/10

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