Friday, April 17, 2015

Off the Shelf: Firewalker (Blu-ray)

by Patrick Bromley
Cannon movies on Blu-ray are the best, but Chuck Norris is the worst.

In the 1980s, the great exploitation studio Cannon Films was making every effort to become a legitimate player in Hollywood by working faster, cheaper and with more flash than any other studio. Part of their plan for world domination included building a stable of stars with whom they could work in movie after movie, which is why they provided a home to action icons like Charles Bronson and Michael Dudikoff throughout the decade. There was perhaps no bigger star on the Cannon roster than Chuck Norris, who made roughly 10 movies for Cannon in the decade between Missing in Action in 1984 and Hellhound in 1994 -- which, incidentally, was also Cannon's last film.

1986's Firewalker, yet another attempt by Menham Golan and Yoram Globus to replicate the success of the Indiana Jones series (a list that includes both King Solomon's Mines and its follow-up, Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold), was conceived as a vehicle to show off the lighter side of Chuck Norris. Well, the joke's on us. Chuck Norris does not have a lighter side. That's like expecting a block of wood to have a lighter side; turn it over and it's just more wood. And when you're expecting the lighter side of wood and it turns out to just be more wood it's way worse than when you just want wood to be wood.
Norris plays Max Donigan, a mostly unsuccessful treasure hunter who travels the globe with his friend and partner Leo Porter (Louis Gossett Jr.) in search of fortune and adventure. Down on their luck, the pair is approached by a woman (Melody Anderson) who claims to have a map leading to a bounty of lost treasure and wants to hire them to find it. On their quest, they locate an ancient golden dagger belonging to a spirit called Firewalker. The dagger brings them to San Miguel, where they encounter angry locals, John Rhys-Davies and a bad dude (played by Sonny Landham of Predator) who wants both the golden dagger and the treasure for himself. Sounds like somebody's getting roundhouse kicked.

My feelings about Chuck Norris, action star, are well documented on this site. I don't get it. His martial arts skills are impressive (and on display for pretty much the length of one bar fight here, yet another reason the movie doesn't work), but he lacks any of the other qualities that turn athletes into action stars: acting ability, natural charisma, likability, intensity, you name it. This total deficit in appeal is exacerbated by the fact that in Firewalker, Norris is supposed to be loose and "funny." He is neither, and witnessing his attempts to be both of those things is like watching a dog put on sideburns and try to pass as The Fonz. No one is fooled.
The movie is directed by Cannon staple J. Lee Thompson, who typically knows his way around cheap trash like this but directs Firewalker with a leaden touch. Neither he or Norris is able to make a single joke land. Take, for example, a scene depicting a terrifying, bumpy flight to San Miguel. We see Melody Anderson looking scared and Louis Gossett Jr. looking scared and Chuck Norris sleeping and then chaos on the plane and then the plan lands and everyone looks freaked out and then we cut back to Melody Anderson looking scared and Louis Gossett Jr. looking scared and Chuck Norris waking up like nothing is wrong. THE GAG ONLY WORKS IF HIM SLEEPING IS THE PUNCHLINE. You don't tell a joke by starting it, telling the punchline, continuing the joke, telling the punchline and then telling the punchline and waiting for us to laugh.

Thompson never gets a handle of the movie's tone, either. Is it a comedy? No, because those have a) jokes and b) laughs. It's more an adventure movie in which nothing is taken seriously, but that wrecks the possibility of our investment. He had already pulled off something similar and better with King Solomon's Mines, which is so over the top and tongue-in-cheek that there's no way to watch it other than as an exaggeration of the Indiana Jones series (which was itself already exaggerated). In Firewalker, though, the attempt at a "light" tone makes for an adventure movie that feels shaggy and half-assed. No real choice is ever made for Chuck Norris' character; we're not sure if he's such a competent man of action that he's unphased at the sight of danger or if he's a screwup masquerading as a man's man. He's either one depending on what the scene needs him to be, but the effect is a character we never know or understand. We're never watching Max Donigan because we're too busy watching Chuck Norris be stiff and uncomfortable.
Somewhat surprisingly, the best thing about the movie turns out to be Melody Anderson. She's played this kind of role before, trapped between straightforward genre and self-aware camp in 1980's Flash Gordon. She seemed lost in that movie, swallowed up by the size and gaudiness of the production, not connecting with any of the other actors and never getting a handle on how to play her character. None of that is true in Firewalker. Anderson gives good Willie Scott. She's competent and not played for cheap, ditzy laughs, but Anderson still knows enough to give the part the right amount of screwball energy. While Louis Gossett Jr. is very capable in his thankless role as the sidekick, Anderson is the only actor in the movie whose performance suggests what Firewalker might have been.

So I don't love Firewalker, even as an anomaly in Chuck Norris' filmography. I'm still thrilled to have it on Blu-ray. My love for Cannon is such that just seeing the logo pop up in HD at the start of the film is enough to earn my good will for the next two hours. Olive Films has been great about releasing Cannon titles in high def these days and I'm hoping there are still more to come (like The Last American Virgin, which they're putting out in May). These are the kinds of movies I come back to again and again, and while Chuck Norris' flat, tone deaf attempts at comedy might keep me away from Firewalker, I can already tell that Melody Anderson is going to bring me back.

Blu-ray release date: April 21, 2015
115 minutes/1986/PG
1.85:1 (1080p)
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)

16 comments:

  1. One could make a case that Chuck Norris is, indeed, the worst.

    That does NOT mean, however, that Lone Wolf McQuade is not the best, because it is.

    I could tell you why, but it would bore everybody and this is a Firewalker comment section. Norris is no movie star in any sense of the term, but I still love LWQ.

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    1. Isn't it though? That movie just rocks.

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  2. I remember watching this on VHS as a kid and enjoying it. Then again, I also enjoyed The Private Eyes with Tim Conway/Don Knotts, so you really shouldn't be considering anything I say. :)

    The only Chuck Norris movie I think that can be considered legitimately good is Code of Silence, and that movie is good in spite of his presence.

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    1. I used to LOVE The Private Eyes. I have not seen it in years. It's probably better that way.

      I like Code of Silence. It's a good one. I like Lone Wolf McQuade enough and Invasion U.S.A. is terrible, ugly fun. That's a pretty short list.

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    2. Code of Silence is probably only as good as it is because of Andrew Davis, who did a different version of that flick with Seagal (Above The Law) a couple years later...same Chicago setting and even the same bad guy (Henry Silva!) in what is -- in my opnion, as a dedicated Seagalogist -- a better movie.

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    3. The Private Eyes is one of my top 5 comedies of all time. I watch it once a year. hen's Tooth put out the blu Ray and it has commentary with Conway. It's great! I LOVE that film. Watch it again Patrick, it's still great after all of these years!

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    4. And Mike Eaton, now I consider everything you say!

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    5. Haha. Thanks for the kind words. I really appre....


      LOOK OUT! IT'S A WOOKALOR!

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    6. Sucks the brain right out of your head! My favorite is when Conway is on the ladder in the pantry and finds the peaches and starts eating them while proceeding to squirt peach juice out of mouth on Knots. The facial reactions are priceless. And when he throws the messenger pigeon through the window?! Oh shucks, might be time to watch again!

      Interesting note - when I fist saw this film, I walked over to my friends house from elementary school and he's like "lets watch a movie". So he proceeds to pull out this record shaped thing and put in Private Eyes. I was like WHAT is that?! Needless to say, it was the first generation laserdisc.

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  3. And its 115mins too, Sorry Patrick but I wont be buying this one through the links, and im not a fan of watching films ironically, I do totally understand the affinity for seeing Golon-Globus at the beginning of a movie though

    I actually now and then like the idea of watching Chuck norris films but then after a couple usually give up and move on








    The Chuck norris jokes are possibly better than the films


    Fear of spiders is aracnaphobia, fear of tight spaces is chlaustraphobia, fear of Chuck Norris is called Logic


    Chuck Norris has a grizzly bear carpet in his room. The bear isn't dead it is just too afraid to move.


    Chuck Norris doesn't wear a watch. HE decides what time it is.


    The original title for Alien vs. Predator was Alien and Predator vs Chuck norris
    The film was cancelled shortly after going into preproduction. No one would pay nine dollars to see a movie fourteen second movie








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    1. Testosterone gets Chuck Norris injections.

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    2. The dark is afraid of Chuck Norris.

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    3. When the Bogeyman goes to sleep at night he first checks his closet for Chuck norris

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  4. Looking back, it's kind of weird Melody Anderson didn't have more of a career. But it's even better that now she seems to be an addicition counselor of all things!

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  5. True story: while on vacation as an 8 year old, my younger brother and I convinced our parents to take us to a single screen theater in Monterey, Ca. to see Firewalker. We were pretty amped to see some Chuck Norris action even though I can't think of why I would have been aware of him other than TV spots for Firewalker. The lights in the theater finally went down ten minutes late and the movie started only to immediately stop when the film came undone. This happened a couple more times leaving the screen blank white. My dad said "I'll be right back" and walked up the aisle. After a few moments and a brief commotion in the projection booth the movie started up successfully. My Dad walked back into the theater to applause from the six or so other people in the audience. It was only then that I realized my pops had just schooled a couple stoned teenagers on how to thread up a projector. My brother and I have relished the memory ever since, even though it resulted in a viewing of Firewalker.

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  6. I'll be honest, I find this movie incredibly charming. I tend to always like Indiana Jones knock offs, and I've recently become a legitimate fan of Chuck Norris. I know the writing is clunky and most of the jokes don't work and the budget is way too low. I really couldn't care less. I love the relationship between Chuck and Lou, and Melody couldn't be more charming. It's tons of fun for me. I smile through the whole thing.

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