by Patrick Bromley
Stone Cold (1990)
Beginning in the 1970s, it was somewhat commonplace for action stars to come out of the NFL. Some were mostly popular in the Blaxploitation world -- Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, both huge blaxploitation stars, were both football players. Others, like O.J. Simpson and Carl Weathers, went mainstream. Even if they weren't the best actors -- and some of them weren't -- they all brought a certain charisma and physicality with them that, for the most part, made for convincing action stars. But things were shifting by the 1990s. Action heroes needed to be more colorful. Football players were becoming rock stars. And right at the apex of those two changes was Brian Bosworth.
Bosworth was Seattle's answer to Jim McMahon, the punky QB of the legendary '85 Chicago Bears -- he was all Oakley sunglasses, mullet/shave combo hair cut and flamboyant, rock star attitude. He was a big deal, more famous for the cult of personality around him than for his abilities as a player. "The Boz," as he was so known, was drafted to the Seahawks in 1987, receiving the biggest contract ever given to a rookie and was suing the NFL (so he could wear his college number) before he had even played a game. He talked a ton of trash, created a lot of hype and then completely shit the bed, failing to deliver on his promise and retiring at the start of his third season. He was one of the biggest, loudest flops in professional sports history.
Naturally, Hollywood came calling.
Cobra, this movie opens with the hero foiling a supermarket robbery, which as everyone knows is a thing). He spends his days lounging around in his bikini underwear, banging centerfolds and feeding elaborately-blended slop to his lizard. His suspension is lifted when an FBI agent blackmails him into going undercover in The Brotherhood, a Mississippi biker gang facing charges for running drugs and for murdering a judge. Huff becomes John Stone (because OF COURSE HIS NAME IS JOHN STONE BECAUSE JOHN STONE IS STONE COLD), a badass biker who infiltrates the gang, gains the trust of the leader, Chains (Lance Henriksen, who plays the dual role of the main bad guy and Bosworth's gila monster), hits it off with one of the bikers' Old Ladies (the excellently-named Arabella Holzbog) and clashes with psychotic biker Ice (William Forsythe).
As much as I enjoy Stone Cold -- a movie that's very aware of just how over-the-top and silly it is, but never lapses into self-parody -- I have a hard time getting on board with John Stone. It's not really even Bosworth's fault, though he's more capable than good. It's the character of Joe Huff/John Stone, a cop cut from the same cloth as Marion Cobretti in Cobra. He exists just to be badass and cool, more sunglasses and wardrobe than human being. It's a carryover from Bosworth the "personality" -- a character that's just barely grafted onto Bosworth's public persona (in much the same way that The Adventures of Ford Fairlane just takes Andrew Dice Clay's persona and calls it "Ford Fairlane"). Lots of people like the super cool action hero, probably because it acts as some sort of wish fulfillment. I prefer mine to be more vulnerable. Your John McClanes. Your Joe Hallenbecks. What I'm saying is that Bruce Willis should have been in Stone Cold.
But not really, because the baggage that Bosworth brings to the movie is what makes it the unique anomaly that it is. Putting Stallone or Chuck Norris or Dolph Lundgren into the movie would have just made it "that one where Stallone/Norris/Lundgren fights the bikers." With Bosworth in the lead, it's STONE COLD.
Stone Cold, released in 1991 (the best year for action movies ever), is the last major movie directed by the great Craig R. Baxley after Action Jackson and I Come in Peace. It's in keeping with the rest of his work, with tons of practical stunts, hard-boiled attitude, a self-aware sense of humor and lots of crazy shit that borders on the absurd. I don't know anything about the making of the movie. Maybe Baxley and Bosworth got on like a couple of schoolgirls. Maybe The Boz was Baxley's muse. But the finished film feels like Baxley figured out fairly early on that Bosworth would be a black hole at the center of the movie, and so filled out the rest with the biggest, loudest, most colorful and over the top shit he possibly could. That is his gift. His movies eschew the more grounded, real-world approach of guys like like John McTiernan and Richard Donner and brush right up against full-on absurdity.
Bosworth actually continued his movie career, cranking out DTV action movies at pretty regular intervals for the next 20 years. Stone Cold was his big shot at stardom, though, and while it failed to make him a household name as an action star, it's still something special -- one of the last gasps of delirious action movie excess. It tries to be lightning in a bottle. It ends up being more like Mountain Dew. That's ok, because that stuff tastes awesome.
Firestorm might as well be a remake of Stone Cold, because it casts an NFL star as its hero and William Forsythe plays the bad guy. Other than that, they're not really alike. But they're the same where it counts.
I forgot to mention Scott Glenn, who is on hand presumably to class things up. He is subject to one of the most arbitrary and underdeveloped plot twists in action movie history; we're pretty much just waiting the reveal on him, not because the movie has earned it (it has not), but because we saw Backdraft.
It's possible I missed out on some of the intricacies of the plan, but Forsythe seems like kind of a horrible criminal. His escape plan is entirely dependent on there being another inmate who looks EXACTLY LIKE HIM (Forsythe plays a dual role), only with short hair and glasses. He stole $37 million and ditched it in the woods? Was that cash? Does anyone have any idea how much $37 million in cash would be? I don't mean the amount. That's a given. I mean how much physical space it would actually take up. Unless it was in million dollar bills, it's a lot. And to get it back, he sets the woods on fire? That's like blowing up a bank before going in to rob it.
The movie is directed by Dean Semler, an Australian cinematographer who directed second unit on the Super Mario Bros. movie, then directed both Firestorm and The Patriot (Steven Seagal's first DTV movie) in the same year and then never directed again. He does a pretty good job here, especially with the difficult fire sequences -- for an otherwise generic action movie, the movie has impressive fire photography. That novelty sets the it apart from most of the late-'90s action cinema. The screenplay, by Chris Soth, is filled wall-to-wall with "fire" speak; either Soth was a fireman or knew a fireman or did a bunch of research on forest fires and then worked all of his notes into the dialogue. Most of the time, it's expository and stupid. Other times, like when Howie Long sets a "backfire" by shooting exploding ping pong balls, it's kind of neat because it explains things to me about fighting forest fires that I didn't already know. Action movies are rarely able to do that, mostly because I already know how to dismantle a bomb at the last possible second and shoot two guns at once without hitting any of the doves flying around the room.
Unfortunately, the movie wants to give Jesse a lot of "personality," and personality is not where Howie Long excels. He gets a bunch of smartass one-liners and sarcastic comebacks, because Die Hard taught us that there's only one acceptable type of action hero (for the record, Firestorm is kind of like Die Hard in a forest fire). It's all wrong for the character, because Howie Long isn't quite comfortable being loose or funny in that way -- he ends up just coming off like a prick a lot of the time. He's good as a square; he should just be allowed to be square. Look at John Cena in The Marine: he's square and a little stiff, but more than capable as an action hero and doesn't have to be all smirky and jokey. The kind of hero was pretty much out of date by the late '90s, anyway, but Firestorm keeps trying to cram Howie Long into the '80s mold. It's never so bad that it ruins the movie, but the fact that he's not allowed to play exactly to his strengths might explain why Long's action career stalled out after this.
But there's another reason, too: like the Boz in Stone Cold, Howie Long doesn't really do anything to directly take out the bad guys in Firestorm. SPOILERS All
of the henchmen are killed off one at a time by Forsythe, who doesn't
want to share his $37 million; it's a structure that grows repetitive
quickly and manages to become boring. What's worse, it doesn't really
give Howie Long the opportunity to be a factor in bringing the bad guys
down. I don't need to see him constantly throwing axes into their chests
-- just the one time is good enough -- but affording him some sort of
agency might have made the movie better. Long comes off as ineffectual
because he doesn't do much other than escape and survive (he gets one
extended hand-to-hand fight scene and defeats Forsythe, but that's it).
Would his career as an action star have done better if he had been...I
don't know...more of an action hero?