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It's always dicey approaching agenda-driven movies as popular entertainment; by-and-large, the audience sniffs them out. Recently, on either end of the political spectrum, Swing Vote and An American Carol were both considered critical and box office flops, with Costner's vehicle making back about 75% of its budget, and Zucker's only recouping about 30%. Over in the non-secular world, however, things proved quite different for a little Kirk Cameron programmer named Fireproof. To call Fireproof a message movie is like saying The Exorcist has a few scares. Maybe it's down to having a faithful core audience, but this ode to the sanctity of Christian Marriage returned its miniscule $500,000 budget over 60 times, out-earning both Swing Vote and An American Carol combined. It certainly doesn't hurt that - proselytizing aside - Fireproof's pretty good.
We're dropped in the middle of a pretty chilly marriage, all the more disheartening for its startlingly realistic depiction of marital discord. Caleb Holt, (Kirk Cameron) a particularly upright Fire Captain, falls down on the domestic front. Addicted to Internet Porn, he divides the rest of his free time between hoarding his money for a speedboat and blindly demanding respect from his wife. Meanwhile Catherine, (Erin Bethea) does her best to emotionally distance herself from the husband she no longer knows. Their metaphorical home fires are icy-hot, every word or action's an egregious slight as they freeze each other out, slashing with verbal ice-daggers or ignoring each other with extreme malice. They've totally given up.
Their closely guarded work lives contain peril; Caleb risks his life and bottles his rage, Catherine's already looking for her next man. It's when the message bubbles up. Sensing trouble, Caleb's Christian friend at work encourages him to seek a righteous path towards marriage salvation, while Caleb's dad challenges him to the 40-day-long Love Dare - a project inextricably tied to the teachings of the Good Book. A pair of reasonably tense rescue set-pieces give way to preachy sections that pad the movie uncomfortably, and secular viewers will likely dismiss it outright for its unabashed agenda, missing out on a rewarding, compelling story arc that gets its message across despite numerous stumbling blocks.
Solidly shot, if not in a fairly pedestrian manner, Fireproof struggles most with an uneven tone and volunteer actors who clearly have more heart than chops. Action scenes are secondary to lengthy bits finding the elder Holt gently preaching to his kid about not giving up on marriage, and more importantly, loving Christ before he can truly love his wife. Caleb and dad meander through lovely autumnal parks, failing to eke drama out of scenes seemingly from a long-form Paxil commercial. The fact that every time Caleb encounters trouble we're treated to another pharmaceutical advertisement grinds the movie to a halt. Meanwhile, Catherine's struggle (at least blessedly containing a sleazy doctor) is otherwise no less prosaic. Her hospital friends and others she encounters valiantly strive as actors - that is, they're pretty darn unconvincing, and her scenes are shot with less flair than your average Soap Opera.
Yet despite these hurdles - and they're big ones - you can't help but root for Caleb and Catherine. Intense decay in their marriage is all-too realistic, and man and wife both start out as pretty nasty individuals, seeing only themselves and finding nothing wrong in their respective camps. You want these fallible humans to catch a break. Fireproof probably won't tip many fence sitters into the Baptist way, (Fireproof and the earlier Facing The Giants were both produced by the Sherwood Baptist Church) but you can't deny its universal messages: treat each other with respect and compassion, and be willing to do the hard work of maintaining your relationships. That these simple homilies are tied into a decent, entertaining movie (you might even get a little choked up by the end) proves that you can have your agenda and sell it, too.
Fireproof blazes across your screen in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, looking quite nice on DVD. Looking as crisp and sharp as those big-pharma TV advertisements it sometimes resembles, Fireproof's image is bright and awash in autumnal colors.
You get either English or Spanish Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound Audio tracks, which are nice but otherwise relatively average - not very aggressively mixed or flashy. Soundtrack songs are at an acceptable volume, and dialog is generally mixed in well and distinguishable.
This single-disc edition includes a cornucopia of extras. A horn-of-plenty if you will! First is the Filmmaker's Commentary in which the Kendricks (Stephen and Alex) hold forth with plenty of interesting information. There's more than enough describing what is going on onscreen, but there's also discussion of making a movie with an all-volunteer cast and crew that's fascinating, and a good amount of dissection of their sharp and canny script. Of course this commentary is more than 50% 'on message' proselytizing and the pair comes off at times like well-meaning but pushy and dated marriage counselors, referring to wolves (interloping men) sheep (vulnerable women) and roses that need watering - I'll leave that last image to you.
The Fireproof: Behind the Scenes Featurette runs about 22 minutes, resembling an ultra cheery EPK mixed with true behind the scenes stuff, more about that all-volunteer process, and plenty more about the good word. A five-minute Love Dare Promo talks about the creation of the Love Dare book, in conjunction with the movie, and about how it ties scripture in with the process. It's suggested that you'll fail at the dare if you don't accept God into your heart, but if you're a die-hard atheist or of some other faith, just substitute 'letting go of your ego' (and if you haven't done that already as a married person, then you probably already need help) and try your best.
The seven-minute Marriage Matters Featurette covers much of the same ground, in a slightly more focused manner, ultimately asking men to take a 'leadership role' in their marriages before devolving into a music video. 15 minutes of Deleted Scenes offers a brief director's introduction before displaying scenes of varying length, with additional comic-relief/everyday type stuff, back-story bits and more. All were cut for length or pacing ... of course. Firegoofs/ Jokes and Pranks runs about eight minutes, with lots of well-edited silliness (a montage of actors saying 'sorry' for flubbing their lines is especially nice) including plenty of on-set horseplay - it's a far-less tense set than your average blockbuster, that's for sure.
Fireproof Resources provides about five scene clips pertinent to various struggles in marriage. For your DVD-Rom usages are discussion guidelines for each scene - meaning you'll have to PowerPoint this sucker for your congregation. The Wayne on Wayne Interview (Wayne is the goofiest of firefighters on Caleb's crew) rolls out three-minute's worth of (clever enough to be scripted) comic responses to interview questions. Pretty funny stuff, actually. Fireproof in 60 Seconds encapsulates a humorous summation that's quite amusing. Previews for three other religious dramas (including Facing The Giants) more-or-less rounds out this package, but let's not forget an additional Spanish Audio Track, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese Subtitles, and Closed Captioning. Whew!
With an open Christian agenda, (something the secular world tends to frown on when picking movies) Fireproof manages to pull off its trick. And this despite a cast of amateurs, (excepting Cameron, of course) pedestrian aesthetics, and some run-time-inflating sermonizing that looks made for cable TV. Stripped of its churchly trappings, the Fireproof message is no less potent. Cameron (and Bethea to a lesser extent) sells that message through a smart performance of a hopeless, convincingly soul-deadened character that deserves a second chance. Fireproof is a solid Rent It for couple's night, and with a bounty of extras, those whose relationships are on the skids might find it recommended.