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Firepower
(1994)

Director: Richard Pepin   
Cast:
Gary Daniels, Chad McQueen, Jim Hellwig


PM Entertainment went through so many transformations during its lifetime that it's hard to believe many of its films were made by the same company when you compare them to each other. Take a look at the company's history, starting back in the latter part of the '80s when Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi first got together and founded the company that was originally called City Lights. In those first few years they made a name for themselves with ultra cheap movies like Mayhem, The Newlydeads, and Dance Or Die. As bad and cheap as those movies were, they must have made a profit, because in the first part of the '90s they were not only still around, they were making somewhat higher-budgeted movies like Chance, The Art Of Dying, and Street Crimes, which, while not all good, were a definite improvement on what they made previously. (They had changed their name to PM Entertainment at this point, possibly in a ploy to distance themselves from those awful movies they made in their first years.) A few years from that point, the budgets increased slightly again, and they made movies like Cybertracker, Ice, and Direct Hit. Then around 1996 PM hit its peak, raising significantly large budgets for their movies which included Rage, The Sweeper, and Executive Target. Not only were their movies slickly made, they delivered the goods to B movie fans to a degree that most B movie producers can dream of. Then there were their last few years, with movies like Epicenter and Hot Boyz; although there was still merit to be found in their movies, they overall didn't match what was made just a few years earlier.

Firepower is one of those third stage movies, made just before PM Entertainment hit its peak, and it fits pretty well with the product PM was making around this time. The plot: In the far-away year of 1999, the local Los Angeles government created a special area in the district called the "Zone Of Personal Freedom" in an effort to ease the burden on local law enforcers' strained police budgets. The Zone was created as a place where "victimless" crimes like drug use, prostitution and gang vendettas could flourish without the presence of the police getting into the way of these particular criminals. For a while it worked, with crime rates in the rest of the city going down significantly. But in the seven years since its creation, it has become a lawless no mans land. Now referred to as the "Hell Zone", underground gangs now rule the area, the most prominent being the Hellriders. The gangs now inflict the whole city with their crimes, then retreat back into the Hell Zone, where most of the police are too fearful to follow. The movie focuses on two members of this L.A.P.D. of the future, Sledge (Daniels, Rage) and Braniff (McQueen, son of Steve McQueen). One night, cops from their precinct capture one of the prominent members of the Hellriders, "The Swordsman" (Hellwig, wrestling's The Ultimate Warrior), but an attack on the precinct by the Hellriders frees The Swordman just minutes after he's brought it. Sledge and Braniff track The Swordsman back to the Hell Zone to a club called the Death Ring, run by a crime boss named Drexel (Joseph Ruskin). It's a club where fighters bout on a regular basis, and the martial-arts trained Sledge and Braniff decide to return undercover as fighters to investigate the mysterious Drexel.

It's around this point in Firepower that the movie's biggest problem starts revealing itself. Namely that after this setup, there is really no more plot to be found in the hour or so that follows. It's possible that screenwriter Michael January (behind such PM Entertainment bombs like CIA II: Target Alexa and To Be The Best) might disagree with this assessment. He might point out the parts of the movie involving the AIDS epidemic, thought eradicated five years earlier but experiencing a resurgence due to the flood of a phoney vaccine on the market. Or he might point to the part of the movie involving the strained marriage of Braniff and his wife, with Braniff's wife tiring of her husband's lifestyle and declaring such things as "What kind of example is this, [our son] seeing his father beaten up and smelling like death!" Or the part of the movie where Braniff "makes friends" with a woman (played by Alisha Das, of the TV series Capitol) in the club. Or when the two protagonists report back to their superior (played by George Murdock of Battlestar Galactica) on their progress in their investigation. But none of these plot details go anywhere; they are forgotten about almost as soon as they are introduced, and are not brought back anytime later in the movie to be resolved.

As you may have guessed, the plot is set up for an excuse to see multiple fights at the Death Ring club. Avoiding any effort to carry a plot though the movie to instead concentrate on action isn't necessarily a bad thing. There have been movies before (and since) that have had just a shred of plot mixed in with tons of action that have turned out to be entertaining, such as the PM Entertainment movie The Sweeper. Unfortunately, the action found in Firepower isn't enough to carry the movie, despite its ample amount. First, let me backtrack a little and look at the action before Braniff and Sledge get to the Death Ring. There's a boring car chase down a tunnel that climaxes with a poorly edited montage of multi-angle shots of two cars igniting a fireball and flipping over in the air. The jail break of the Swordsman (who was earlier captured offscreen) is equally lame, frequently cutting away from the action to characters elsewhere in the area, and the impact of the shootings as wimpy as the sparks that come out of the barrels of the guns. The Swordsman's fleeing to the Hell Zone with the cops pursuing him is wrecked by director Pepin's insistence on using the same two or three camera angles for 90% of the chase, giving the scene a feeling that it's being restrained from doing anything spectacular.

With the pre-Death Ring action being lame, it falls on the fight sequences to save the movie, but unfortunately the movie fails in this area as well. To Pepin's credit, he does seem to have partially grasped the idea of how fights in Hong Kong action movies are filmed, because for the large part he films the bodies of the characters so that all of their bodies are visible in the frame. There is no cheating by using extensive close-ups or quick edits. But that is all that's positive that can be said about the fight sequences. For one thing, Pepin's dependence on the same camera angles comes into play again. One of these angles is a ringside seat, looking through the cage where the participants are fighting inside; the mesh of the cage gets in the way of seeing the fights clearly. Then there is the overhead angle, which simply gets tiring to experience after being displayed so many times. But even better camera angles would not save the fight sequences, since they contain the same mistakes you usually find in low-budget action movies; slow choreography, significant pauses between blows, and the feeling that the participants are taking their time. Though both lead actors may be skilled in martial arts, their talents are not showcased here. That is, their fighting skills; both actors' acting skills are easily dismissed, especially McQueen since he is not only made the leader of the duo, he simply cannot display emotion. There is one good performance in the movie, however, and that belongs to Art Camacho, who also did the fight choreography. Though his choreography may be questionable, his gives a charismatic performance in his brief role that also shows a welcome sense of humor that the movie is otherwise lacking. Aside from that, Firepower is a movie that fizzles out quickly, and can only be considered a kind of warm-up for what was to come from PM Entertainment.

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See also: Dance Or Die, Rage, The Sweeper

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