The Number One Movie in America: Fire Down Below
By Sean Collier
June 17, 2021
Steven Seagal has never really gone away, either as an actor — he has continued to churn out direct-to-video action snacks — or as a public nuisance. But the proper era of Seagal, that chunk of time when he (and, for those with more refined tastes, Jean-Claude Van Damme) seemed heir apparent to the Schwarzenegger throne, was brief.
The self-styled mystic and martial-arts expert went to the top of the box-office chart a surprising seven times. Five of those fell between 1990 and 1994, with two champions (“Hard to Kill” and “Marked for Death”) in 1990 alone. The outliers can be waved away as not quite part of the Seagal moment; 2001’s “Exit Wounds” wasn’t really a vehicle for the faded star, and 1997’s “Fire Down Below” was only a champion by virtue of a slow weekend.
In fact, “Fire Down Below,” an edited-to-incoherence yarn about an illegal toxic waste dump in the Kentucky hills, posted an opening total that wouldn’t ordinarily have sniffed the top spot. It inched over the $6 million mark to become the lowest-grossing number one movie of the year; to find a less wealthy champion, you need to go back to mid-’96, when similarly tumbling kick machine Van Damme eked out a win with “Maximum Risk.”
So: How did Seagal go from hitmaker to afterthought in the space of just a few years?
He just couldn’t stop being Steven Seagal.
For a full accounting of the star’s many crimes, some alleged and others fully proven, you can investigate his Wikipedia page; the tally of controversies and charges there is longer than the summary of his film career. The thing to know, however, is that Seagal seems to have been a bad combination of demanding and abusive. Numerous parties — especially women and stuntmen, two groups Seagal seems to have always enjoyed harassing — have come forward to report on what a nightmare he was to work with. Meanwhile, as his star (briefly) rose, he sought more control, eventually moving to the directors’ chair for the Razzie-winning “On Deadly Ground” and pushing for more content espousing his political and environmental views in scripts.
Oh, and he also seems to have insisted on the opportunity to showcase his musical skills. In “Fire Down Below,” he interrupts a whole damn community festival to demonstrate his ho-hum guitar playing.
When a beloved actor becomes particular about their projects, it can be a career stumbling block. When a guy everyone hates anyway starts making demands, that’s about it. Despite briefly topping the charts with “Fire Down Below,” Seagal began making direct-to-video pictures the next year, as the supply of major studios and directors willing to put up with him shrank.
“Fire Down Below,” then, is the swan song of the Seagal moment, and it packs in a lot of weirdness. A supporting cast full of folk and country musicians, glowing green ooze, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it backstory deployed in microfiche, excessive porch construction, a staggeringly low-flying plane and a dreadful romantic subplot with co-star Marg Helgenberger aren’t balanced out by the precious little action in this action picture. (It would also take another full essay to explore Harry Dean Stanton’s character, who could be a point of reference for Ben Stiller’s ... uhh ... problematic alter ego in “Tropic Thunder.”)
It’s got a really fantastic truck fight, but that’s about it.
Seagal, now a Russian citizen — in a staggering turn of events, Vladimir Putin has actually tried to downplay his familiarity with Seagal — continues to exist on the frozen fringes of the movie business. Many of his hits, “Fire Down Below” chief among them, don’t offer the popcorn delights even reached by revisiting old JCVD or Chuck Norris pictures.
But we can always enjoy “Under Siege” and wonder what might’ve been if Steven Seagal weren’t so fully Steven Seagal all the time.
“Fire Down Below” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: A movie mostly about soap.