Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Heavy Action: Stone Cold / Firestorm

by Patrick Bromley
Or: when NFL stars become action heroes.

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.
Bosworth made his big-screen debut -- and, as it so happened, swan song -- in the biker action epic Stone Cold, a glorious and gloriously stupid action movie that perfectly bridges the '80s action heyday and the death knell of the '90s. Bosworth is Joe Huff, an Alabama cop who's on suspension for roughing up some criminals in a grocery store (yes, just like 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.
One of the most amazing things about the movie -- and I hadn't noticed it until it was pointed out by my friend Adam during a recent viewing -- is just how ineffectual John Stone actually is as an action hero. He does very little in terms of stopping the bad guys and even solving the case. The biker gang kills each other, or get hit by cars, or shot by the cops during the bloody climax. Part of me thinks that Bosworth didn't want to be seen killing people on screen -- that it might mess with his image in some way -- so the film skirts the issue and keeps the chaos around him without necessarily making him a part of it. But that can't be the case, since Bosworth is still starring in a movie where a LOT of people die violently, and where he has no problem waking up in bed with a naked girl and being in a biker gang where a lot of women appear naked. Alas, they are the kinds of women who join biker gangs, which is nice attention to detail but hard on the eyes.

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.
I like looking at action movies as being biographical about their stars. Stone Cold is no exception in that it requires Bosworth to play a number of roles: Joe Huff is a cop pretending to be a biker like Bosworth is an athlete pretending to be an actor. Both Huff and Bosworth dress flamboyantly and do a lot of bullshit posturing as a way of playing a "part," as if to distract us from the fact that they don't really fit into the worlds that they're attempting to infiltrate. Bosworth and Huff pass themselves off by standing out, because no one's going to question whether or not someone that alien is really supposed to be there. It's the same misdirection that he pulled in the NFL -- make a lot of noise, call a lot of attention to yourself and distract from the fact that you're in over head. That's Bosworth the lineman. That's Bosworth the actor. That's Joe Huff the cop. That's John Stone the biker. There aren't enough feather earrings in the world to cover for that fact.

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 (1998)

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.
Hall of Fame player-turned-sportscaster Howie Long, a former defensive lineman for the Raiders, stars as Jesse Graves, a Wyoming "smokejumper" who leads a time of firemen who put out forest fires. Forsythe is Randall Alexander Shaye, a criminal who organizes a prison break to retrieve the $37 million of stolen money he hid in the forest years before. The two characters clash when Shaye stages a fire to get his money back, Jesse jumps out of sky to put it out and an ornithologist named Jennifer (Suzy Amis, aka Mrs. James Cameron No. 5) gets involved. It's like Hitchcock always said: if you're going to introduce baby bird eggs in the first act, they better hatch in the third.

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.
Firestorm wasn't Howie Long's big-screen debut. It wasn't even his action movie debut. He had a supporting part as John Travolta's No. 2 in Broken Arrow, which was a truly bizarre bit of casting (and one of the things that's great about John Woo) but must have caught the eye of someone at Fox, who decided to build an entire movie around Long. He makes more sense as the hero here, cutting a square-jawed, flat-topped figure that recalls Commando-era Schwarzenegger. He's got the right kind of physicality for an action hero.

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?
At a point, Firestorm and Stone Cold really diverge: one positions its former football player star as the square leader of a group of firemen -- heroes who, in the words of Bull McCaffrey, follow rules or someone dies -- while the other is all about a punk rock cop who doesn't play well with others and lives life by his own code. But by cutting both characters off at the knees, the two movies become quite similar. Rather than their personalities informing the action (you know, the way a truly great action movie works), both films are just extensions of the real guys plugged into high concepts. For as much as they are first and foremost genre movies -- the action is the star -- action movies tend to live and die by their stars. Plots matter a little (not really), stunts matter a lot (really), but more than anything, it's the hero that makes the action movie. The movies of Steven Seagal are of wildly varying quality, but we keep coming back because of Seagal. Unfortunately, these two NFL players don't make much of an impression. Both Bosworth and Long give it their all, but Stone Cold and Firestorm succeed in spite of their stars, not because of them.


  1. Patrick, this is so weird, yesterday Yahoo did an article on the worst NFL contracts of all time and I asked out loud to whoever was around, "Why isn't Brian Bosworth on here." My soldiers who were around asked who that was, and I tried to give a quick oral history. Thanks for filling in the details.

    1. I guess you kind of had to be there, but "there" didn't last long enough to make a real impression. I remember him way more for Stone Cold (or as one of my go-to players when I try to talk football with Doug) than I do for his time on the Seahawks.

  2. Great essay Patrick - I like the contrasts of the athletes/actors, the characters they play and of course the titles - nicely done.

    It's too bad Howie Long couldn't quite pull it off - he definitely has the look and from watching him cover football, he seems like a genuinely good guy - the kind of action hero you would want to root for. But alas, he obviously doesn't have acting chops or the charisma to pull off being a star without them (like Arnie). I'd still check out Firestorm though - I think I've seen his fellow sportscasters play clips from it to embarrass him - that skydiving pic looked familiar...

    And for opposite, but perhaps more compelling, reasons I kinda want to watch The Boz in Stone Cold - I only know a bit about his football shenanigans but it sounds like he brings his real-life dickisness to the character in a ridiculous but watchable way.

    P.S. In $100 notes, $37M would weigh about 750 lbs. and would make about 16 8-foot stacks - you would want to not kill at least 4 or 5 henchmen to deal with all that. Get it back to your base and THEN kill the henchmen - that's a little free advice for any Bad Guys out there.

    1. The more you know.

    2. That would be hilarious - Sopranos-style The More You Know's.

      So, hey, when you're shootin' a guy in the face, make sure you stand at least 10 feet away or you run the risk of sustaining an eye injury from a flying bone fragment or even worse, getting brain stains on your suit.

      (cue music) *The More You Know*

      Hey, remember kids, civilians are off-limits. When you're taking out some two-bit rat, leave the stupid broad he's with alone - she'll probably be too traumaticized to describe you to the cops and they don't really care about who killed some scumbag anyway.

      (cue music) *The More You Know*

      I could do this all day!

  3. Nice article Patrick, I remember seeing Broken Arrow as a kid and loving the movie but my Dad and I had a lot of unintentional laughs when it came to Howie Long's "acting". I can think of one NFL star who actually turned out to be a good actor Carl Weathers. To be fair his career is all over the damn place (From Apollo Creed to Action Jackson) but he always has a great presence in his movies.

    Speaking of Apollo Creed that might make a great albeit extremely lengthy podcast on the Rocky saga. Also it would be a great chance to get all the Sylvester Stallone impressions out of everybodys system. Or better yet do the entire podcast in Sylvester Stallone voice I would listen to that I swear.

    1. Don't forget Bob Golic, whose turn as R.A. Mike on Saved by the Bell: The College Years is the stuff of legend. Suck it, Brando.

  4. I like that you threw some kind words in the direction of THE MARINE. I've always found that to be an underrated B action flick, with a performance by Robert Patrick as the villain that transcends the material and all by itself makes the movie watchable (just watch the offhanded way Patrick delivers his first line in the film).

    1. One of these days I'll get around to doing a Heavy Action column on The Marine, which I really enjoy on an '80s throwback level. I had such high hopes for 12 Rounds, too, but it was a little to "classy." Still fine, but lacked the craziness of The Marine. Sad that John Cena seems to have bailed on action movies now. I liked him.

  5. Wow, I am somewhat amazed to find such detail on Stone Cold. A tribute to a true Film. Now I'll have to check Ricochet and Surviving the Game...