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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » City on Fire (Blu-ray)
City on Fire (Blu-ray)
Scorpion Releasing // R // August 23, 2016 // Region Free
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 9, 2017 | E-mail the Author
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With City on Fire (1979), a Canadian-made disaster epic produced at the tail end of the genre's ‘70s blockbuster cycle, I was expecting it to be pretty awful. Its 3.6 (out of 10) IMDb rating and lampooning on Mystery Science Theater 3000 didn't bode well, nor did its cast of B-list actors and down-on-their luck guest stars, including genre veterans Shelley Winters (The Poseidon Adventure), Henry Fonda (The Swarm), and Ava Gardner (Earthquake).

It's by-the-numbers genre filmmaking but not nearly as terrible as I had imagined. At 106 minutes, there's no time at all to flesh out its ensemble cast of characters. The visual effects are as terrible as those in producer Sandy Howard's other 1979 disaster epic, Meteor (also featuring Fonda), but the $5.3 million production has some good points. The scale of the physical effects, including the destruction of an entire city block, is impressive, and the stunt work is far more harrowing than anything found in the much more popular The Towering Inferno (1974) and other films. Indeed, at least a half-dozen times I wondered how the stuntman (or woman) could have possibly escaped serious injury.

Despite three Canadians in leading parts (Susan Clark, Leslie Nielsen, and Jonathan Welsh) and location shooting in Montreal, City on Fire is set in an unnamed American city, confirmed by the presence of American flags in a number of scenes.

Suggested by the 1947 Texas City disaster, the movie is long on characters, short on plot. In the nameless city, as Mayor William Dudley (Nielsen) prepares for the opening ceremonies for a new hospital built along Skid Row, a disgruntled oil refinery employee (Welsh), goes berserk after losing an anticipated promotion. Almost comically, before walking off the job he gleefully opens various valves around the plant, flooding the city's sewage system with gasoline. The refinery has been built at the cusp of the city, which is unusually short of water. A welder's torch sets this perfect storm into motion.

At the new but shoddily-built hospital, socialite Diana Brockhurst-Lautrec (Clark) breaks off her romance with the mayor and quarrels with chief surgeon-former lover-ladies man Dr. Frank Whitman (Barry Newman) while nurse Andrea Harper (Winters) tries to look busy. As the fire spreads, Fire Chief Risley (Henry Fonda), on the cusp of retirement, oversees the department's attempts to contain the blaze. At the local television network affiliate, news director Jimbo (James Franciscus) tries to keep star anchor Maggie Grayson (Gardner) from blowing her big break by succumbing to the bottle. (As in Earthquake, Gardner plays a self-destructive alcoholic). The fire spreads quickly and all-consumingly, so much so that those in the hospital face possible asphyxiation in the growing firestorm.

Though it teeters precariously toward unintended parody, approaching the same level of silliness as That's Armageddon!, the faux trailer featured in Kentucky Fried Movie, and in hindsight made worse by the presence of Nielsen, who'd soon star in Airplane!, from Kentucky Fried Movie's same writers, City on Fire hits all the genre's tropes without really stumbling too badly. Overall it's a far, far better movie than "Master of Disaster" Irwin Allen's later efforts, especially the profoundly silly The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, unintended laugh riots.

I thought I'd seen City on Fire before, during its network premiere, but I was probably confusing it with Fire (1977), an Irwin Allen-produced TV movie. Whatever I'm remembering eschewed staged fire scenes and special effects for stock footage of real blazes. That's not the case here, and whatever else one might say against the film, stunt coordinator Grant Page and his team delivered Oscar-worthy material.

As real as such scenes can be made to look today on CGI-aided shows like Chicago Fire, in City on Fire stuntmen and women quite clearly put themselves in harm's way throughout the picture. They seem to be wearing as little protective gear as they can get away with, and expose themselves to much unnecessary risk. An early scene, depicting an apartment building fire, has men in minimal fire gear working their way through tight corridors as flames flash in their faces, set clothes ablaze, and flooring collapses under their feet. Throughout the film, explosions and fireballs engulf the stunt performers and they take some spectacular falls as well.

The handful of visual effects are awful, notably a frequent cutaway of Nielsen and others supposedly on the hospital's roof as the city burns in the distance. But the scale is impressive for a medium-budget movie of the period. What looks like a rundown city block, rather than a studio-built backlot, was impressively burned for the picture, and some of the pyrotechnics elsewhere (the refinery, the apartment building) are on a scale that's unusual.

Other aspects of the film are variable. Fonda's command center is oddly designed. Complete with military style strategic mapping, it opens out onto a busy street through ordinary glass doors, as if inviting passersby to look in on the action. The walls inside are floridly decorated, more like a Chuck E. Cheese's.

The script, surprisingly co-credited to director Jack Hill, has no compelling characters, though to its credit Nielsen's corrupt mayor isn't entirely evil and over the top like, say, Richard Chamberlain's villain in Towering Inferno, and there are a few mild surprises. Fonda's part is less embarrassing than most of his other late-career, take-the-money-and-run walk-ons, though Winters is truly wasted in a no-nothing role.

Video & Audio

A Scorpion Releasing title, the 1.78:1 HD transfer of the 1.85:1 release, City on Fire generally looks very good, despite sourcing what appears to be a theatrical print, exhibiting some minor damage and reel change cues. The mono audio (English only) is adequate and the disc itself is region-free. The lone Extra is an original TV spot.

Parting Thoughts

More enjoyable than one might expect, City on Fire is neither a good nor particularly bad disaster movie, a colorful production with a decent cast and excellent stunt work, it's Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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