Director: Dean Semler
Stars: Howie Long, Suzy Amis, Scott Glenn, William Forsythe
Some of the best-looking films produced in Australia have had Dean Semler working behind the camera. The Road Warrior, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Razorback, The Lighthorsemen, and Dead Calm all carry Semler’s imprint as cinematographer. On taking his trade to Hollywood, Semler scored an Academy Award for his stunning work on 1990’s Dances with Wolves, and since then he’s chalked up a downright eclectic CV. Over the last three decades he’s worked on popcorn flicks (XXX, 2012, Maleficent), broad comedies (The Nutty Professor 2, Bruce Almighty, Get Smart), period films with a smidgen of prestige (The Power of One, We Were Soldiers, The Alamo, Apocalypto, In the Land of Blood and Honey), pulpy thrillers (The Bone Collector, D-Tox), and no less than six Adam Sandler films.
On two occasions Semler has served in the director’s chair. He made his directorial debut with Firestorm, released in March 1998. His directorial swansong, Steven Seagal vehicle The Patriot, was released just three months later and went straight to video. Closing his brief directing run on a Steven Seagal feature is a somewhat ignoble end, but DOPs turned directors have an odd history. For every Nicolas Roeg or Jan de Bont, there’s a Janus Kaminski (Steven Spielberg’s DOP since Schindler’s List) or Wally Pfister (Christopher Nolan’s go-to DOP) who dropped the ball with their directing ventures Lost Souls and Transcendence respectively. Suffice to say, the skill set required to shoot a movie is not quite the same as what’s required to direct. Having said that, as someone who had worked on both massive (Dances with Wolves) and massively troubled (Super Mario Bros, Last Action Hero, Waterworld) productions, not to mention survived working with John Milius (Farewell to the King) and the Brat Pack thrice (Young Guns, Young Guns II, The Three Musketeers), in 1998 Semler was a pretty safe bet to weather the storm, or indeed the firestorm, of a film production.
Firestorm rides the wave of mid-to-late 90s disaster films comprising Twister, Volcano, Dante’s Peak and their ilk, but mixes in some crime/thriller elements ala Backdraft and Hard Rain (the latter film’s writer, Graham Yost, also worked on Firestorm’s script). The film centres on smoke jumpers: elite firefighters who parachute into severe blazes to help endangered citizens. When a major forest fire provides a smokescreen for a prison break, hotshot Jesse (Howie Long) must take down fugitive mastermind Shaye (William Forsythe) while proving his mettle to follow in the footsteps of retiring boss Wynt (Scott Glenn).
Subbing for Semler behind the camera is Stephen F. Windon, another Australian, and looking at his CV it’s clear he’s followed some of Semler’s career cues. Windon worked on shows like Police Rescue and Come in Spinner and low budget Australian films early in his career; like Semler he got a career boost shooting for Kevin Costner, first on the Costner production Rapa Nui and then on the actor-filmmaker’s sophomore directorial feature The Postman; and after serving as Semler’s DOP Windon went on to shoot five of the massively successful Fast and Furious films. As befitting a film directed by a cinematographer, Firestorm looks good: there’s some novel camerawork and angles, and several effective weapons/debris-flying-at-camera moments that would have worked well theatrically, and make me wonder if the film was ever conceived for 3D screening. At times Windon’s compositions are too tight and we don’t always get a sense of the expanse or geography of the fire, but that may be symptomatic of budgetary constraints. As it stands, Firestorm is one of the better post-Backdraft films to capture the raging inferno. But where Backdraft was the #14 film of its year at the box office and comfortably doubled its budget, Firestorm rolled in at #136 in its year of release and earned only half its budget.
There’s an unpretentious blue collar quality to Semler’s work here and his project choices generally, many of which are, not to put too fine a point on it, schlocky. Firestorm is undeniably schlock, albeit schlock helmed by an Oscar-winning DOP and cast with actors from Oscar=winning films of the 1990s, including The Silence of the Lambs (Glenn), Titanic (Suzy Amis), Saving Private Ryan (Barry Pepper), Broken Arrow (Long), and Virtuosity (Forsythe). Okay, those last two didn’t win any Oscars. Regardless, the ensemble cast is a curious liquorice all-sorts mix (with ex-footballer Long in a role previously earmarked for Sylvester Stallone) who do serviceable work with generic characterisations. I don’t necessarily use the term ‘schlock’ to damn Firestorm: there’s good schlock and there’s bad schlock, and the passage of time has been kinder than expected to Firestorm. Had I seen Firestorm in 1998 I would probably have been unimpressed, but from today’s vantage point the film clicks as a throwback to pre-Marvel, pre-Michael Bay action cinema, where the action was tethered to Earth and earthlings and stories of working-class heroism were not the exclusive domain of Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg.