Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: FIREWALKER (1986)


If there was a hot commodity at the box office, you just know the Cannon boys were close behind. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus seemingly made a career out of riding the coattails of popular culture in the 1980s. CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) is big? We givvva ewe HERCULES (1983)! Breakdancing has the entire nation body lockin’? We givvva ewe BREAKIN’ (1984)! So it is no surprise they saddled up for some Indiana Jones action. Their first foray was the 3-D adventure TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS (1983; see review here), which featured Tony Anthony doing his best RAIDERS riff. Next up the clever Cannon collaborators went pre-Indiana Jones by doing up another adaptation of KING SOLOMON’S MINES (1985; review forthcoming), which featured Richard Chamberlain as H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain. Neither one set the box office on fire, but that didn’t stop the Go-Glo duo from financing FIRESTARTER, er, FIREWALKER, an Indiana Jones-esque vehicle for their contracted star Chuck Norris.

FIREWALKER opens with treasure hunters Max Donigan (Chuck Norris) and Leo Porter (Louis Gossett, Jr.) being chased by some Arabs in dune buggies in the desert. Captured and left for dead, the duo escape thanks to one of the funniest product placements ever. Back in a seedy bar in the U.S., Max and Leo are conscripted by Patricia Goodwin (FLASH GORDON’s Melody Anderson), who has a map that she knows leads to ancient Indian treasure. And we are off! Our trio hit up Tall Eagle (Will Sampson) for some cliché Indian history on the legend of Firewalker before heading to Central America to find the treasure. How do they know where it is? Patricia sticks a ceremonial knife in a map while drunk. I’m not kidding! So they head down to the land of Mesoamerica, but don’t know they are being followed by El Coyote (Sonny Landham), a one-eyed baddie who wants to sacrifice Patricia so he can get the power of Firewalker.

No joke, there are THREE people credited on this film for coming up with that story which could fit on a napkin. I wonder if they watch it today with friends and lay claim to the bits they contributed. I hope not because most of this is really, really bad. Things happen with no rhyme or reason. For example, let’s look at the opening. We have no idea why these guys are being chased and who this mysterious General is who threatens them. Is it too hard to add a bit of him taking a treasure they found or an expository line of dialogue? It would help since they have him pop back up in the last shot for a possible sequel. All we get is “he’s bad, they’re good, now shut up and watch!” Another example is El Coyote (watch his eye patch change sides) who has mystical powers that can transform a snake into a woman to seduce Max. But he only uses the powers once successfully. He tries later when he is ten feet from our heroes in the bushes but stops. I got one for you, El Coyote. How about you kill them in their sleep and kidnap the girl with the map then?

Like the earlier reviewed JAKE SPEED (1986), this is also filled with terrible comedy. How bad? One gag has Norris and co. dressing up as priests to sneak onto a train and – wouldn’t you know it – someone needs their services! So there is a bit where they argue who is going to give last rites to a man who has been shot. Nothing says comedy than someone doing goofy Latin over a dying man with his bawling wife nearby! I will give credit though to whoever came up with an odd bit of dialogue when they arrive at Tall Eagle’s place. The leads – with whiskey in tow, naturally – catch him watching an episode of I LOVE LUCY with Lucy giving Desi hell. “If she were mine, I’d cut off her nose,” says our supposedly benevolent Indian mystic. When the biggest laugh you get from me is a throwaway weird line, you know your comedy is not working.

Bad comedy is one thing but it gets even worse with poor delivery. Norris had been a steady box office draw for Cannon thanks to action flicks like MISSING IN ACTION (1984), INVASION U.S.A. (1985) and THE DELTA FORCE (1986). This, however, was the first time he attempted full blown comedy and let’s just say that the stiff Norris is not up to the challenge. You’ll notice right off the bat that his character is meant to be “charming” (hell, they even have him declare it later in some dialogue) but it is like watching your Uncle try to do Shakespeare. “Stoic head kicking badass who occasionally makes a pithy one-liner” is a far more suitable career path for the personality deprived Norris. Some folks argue that Norris is basically poking fun at his tough guy person, but that is total crap. This is a concerted effort to make him into a witty action hero a la Harrison Ford and it fails miserably. Matching his awfulness blow-for-blow is Louis Gossett, Jr., just a few years removed from having won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (1982). He is really awful here to the point of irritating. I’d feel sorry for him, but this is a guy who chose JAWS 3-D (1983) as his next picture after OFFICER (quick side note: Michael Caine did a similar feat a few years later, unable to accept his Academy Award for HANNAH AND HER SISTERS because he was busy filming JAWS: THE REVENGE).

Matching the terrible acting is the shabby direction by J. Lee Thompson. Thompson was a veteran, having directed plenty of epics including THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1963), so it is odd to see him deliver such a flat and disjointed film that has all the visual flair of a TV movie. Make sure to take note of one of the terrible score too. And for an action-adventure film, there is actually very little action onscreen. You get Chuck throwing a kick here and there, but a majority of the screen time is filled with, well, nothing. It is funny because Norris’ character spends a lot of time telling stories of past adventures and you wonder why those elements aren’t here. Where are the cannibal jungle tribes? The killer crocodiles? The car chases? If you are going to rip off Lucas and Spielberg’s flicks, at least copy the best parts. For example, when they reach the temple of gold at the end, they just walk right in! If there is anything the adventures of Dr. Jones have taught us, it is that cinematic explorers should expect a) booby traps and b) their worst fear waiting for them. Instead, we just get Max and Patricia waltzing in like they own the place. The filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to add any suspense to the proceedings, as it they are saying to the audience, “You got a freaking temple and gold, what more do you want?” And they are definitely trying to rip off RAIDERS. How do I know? They cast freaking John Rhys-Davies, Sallah from RAIDERS, and he gets a prominent (and pointless) role midway through the film.

Not surprising, FIREWALKER came and went in less than a month in the fall of 1986. What is surprising is that Norris didn’t stop comedy cold turkey and actually went on to top the awfulness on display here by making TOP DOG (1995), his entry in the time honored “cop and dog” subgenre. Take that Louis Gossett, Jr.!

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