When firefighter Jeremy Coleman (Josh Duhamel) stops at a convenience store to pick up some beer and Funyuns after a hard day of work, he doesn't expect his life to change. Unfortunately, the store's next customer is psychotic gangster David Hagan (Vincent D'Onofrio), looking to expand his territory. He kills the manager and his son, and is about to have one of his goons (Vinnie Jones) take care of Jeremy, but Jeremy manages to escape. Local cop Mike Cella (Bruce Willis) convinces Jeremy to testify, but it means several months separated from family and friends as part of the Witness Protection Program. During that time, Jeremy falls for one of his protectors, FBI Agent Talia Durham (Rosario Dawson). Shortly before Jeremy's court date, Hagan makes an attempt on Jeremy's life that puts Talia in the hospital and indicates jail won't stop Hagan's plan to make Jeremy and Talia's lives a living hell, forcing Jeremy to take matters into his own hands.
The home video market has provided a safe haven for falling stars, with former headliners like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Val Kilmer, and Cuba Gooding Jr. scoring consistent work on cheap action movies. It's not clear if Fire With Fire originated as a direct-to-video project, but it improves on that approach by boasting an above-the-title cast who are still making major movies, and downplaying a number of other names (D'Onofrio, Jones, 50 Cent, Julian McMahon, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) that have become more familiar on the small screen. The film also tosses in a few character actors for good measure (Kevin Dunn, Richard Schiff, Arie Verveen). Most of these supporting cast members have small parts, giving the movie the feel of a big-budget ensemble picture rather than a penny-pinching production.
It helps also that these performances are good. So many direct-to-video features are let down by two sleepy C-list stars and a laundry list of underwhelming local talent. It's a small thing, but it really makes all the difference in a world to have a professional like Kevin Dunn or Julian McMahon handling exposition or a bit part. Some might be concerned that Willis only appears in five to ten minutes of this thing, but it's a fairly significant part, and although it's not really a role that requires much grandstanding, he puts the effort in when the script asks for it, and Duhamel is a durable action lead who has strong chemistry with Dawson. The MVP of the film, though, is D'Onofrio, who chews the scenery with a vicious glee that makes Hagan into an impressively threatening villain.
Director David Barratt has a background in stunts and second unit action direction, and he shoots clean, exciting action. The scope of these sequences is a little limited, but the sequences fit within the story. In particular, Barratt makes good use of Jeremy's firefighter background for the finale, set in a burning building (which mixes on-set flame with computer-generated flame for a much more satisfying result than all-CG fire). Style-wise, he doesn't assert himself too much; one shootout scene uses unnecessary whip-pans, but that's about it.
At the same time, Fire With Fire might still be a little less than the sum of its parts. DTV flicks are more about demographics than creativity, and when you're aiming squarely for a certain audience, you give them what you know they want. There aren't any twists or turns in the story here that are going to blow viewers' socks off, and the film's ending is a little abrupt (I suspect some serious editing was done in the last twenty minutes, eliminating more of 50 Cent's role). The film amounts to a strong rental feature: it delivers the goods with skill that outpaces its competition, but anyone who Redboxes it isn't going to get more than advertised.
Fire With Fire arrives with artwork that conveniently places Bruce Willis and Rosario Dawson in front of the less recognizable Josh Duhamel, and, as mentioned, 50 Cent, Vinnie Jones, Vincent D'Onofrio don't get front-cover credit. The case is an eco-friendly Blu-Ray case with holes punched in it, and there are no inserts.
The Video and Audio
This 2.35:1 AVC 1080p presentation is mostly good. Colors are fine (if intentionally tilted a little teal and orange), detail is through the roof in close-up shots (the texture of skin and clothing is exquisitely rendered). Director David Barratt and his DP Christopher Probst play with focus a little, so sometimes objects appear fuzzy, but it's clearly intentional. The one issue is black levels. Large areas of the screen frequently vanish in pitch-black crush. Overly dark scenes reveal faint banding and an artifact or two. Actual issues stemming from the overly inky image are infrequent, but the general darkness may distract some. It's a minor strike against a high-def presentation that is otherwise exceptional.
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also right on the money. In the movie's heightened gun battles, bullets are thunderously loud, whipping and zinging toward their targets. Music, which has a brooding quality, is nicely rendered and fills the soundscape. Even the sound of teeth scraping on concrete -- a terrible sound if I've ever heard one -- is rendered with wince-inducing clarity. English and French subtitles, and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Two audio commentaries are included, one by director David Barratt and cinematographer Christopher Probst; and actors Vincent D'Onofrio, Eric Winter, and David Lesure. Not surprisingly, the first track leans toward the technical (lots of discussion of the cinematography, but also the action, thanks to Barratt's stunt background), and the second leans toward the casual and anecdote-based. There are gaps in both tracks, but more in the actors' track, and it seems like Vincent D'Onofrio was recorded separately.
"Behind the Scenes: Fire With Fire" (9:20) is a pretty standard making-of featurette, offering a mix of footage from the film, B-roll, and on-set interviews. The most interesting aspect of the featurette is, as mentioned above, the strong suggestion that 50 Cent originally had a bigger part, although there are no deleted scenes on the disc to verify. This is accompanied by additional interviews with director David Barratt (21:43), Josh Duhamel (22:21), 50 Cent (20:30), Eric Winter (5:57), James Lesure (5:15), Vinnie Jones (5:03), Quinton "Rampage" Jackson (7:24), Nnamdi Asomugha (11:38), and producer Randall Emmett (14:17). Frankly, on-set interviews are never particularly great -- the information you get out of the finished press kits is always so surface-level, but when you see the raw footage it often becomes clear that there's only so much to work with, because they're all still in the middle of making the movie, grabbed between takes. I liked Fire With Fire, but I have no need to watch almost two hours of interviews for a ninety-minute film. For the interested, they're included, but I only sampled a little of each clip, and found them to be in keeping with my opinion of on-set interviews.
Trailers for Safe, Freelancers, Haywire, and a promo for Epix play before the main menu. An original trailer for Fire With Fire is also included.
Calling Fire With Fire a strong DTV feature is a double-edged sword. It clearly stands out from the laundry list of home video films I've watched over the years, but there's no real ingenuity or spark of invention here, just plenty of skill and expertise. Rent it.
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