“Did you know there are actors who turn down work?” Zach Galifianakis asked Bruce Willis on Funny Or Die’s spoof chat show Between Two Ferns. It’s a funny question, but also a fair one: Willis has appeared in no fewer than fifteen feature films in the last five years, from the sublime (Moonrise Kingdom, Looper) to the ridiculous (the other thirteen). Many of these films, up to and including A Good Day to Die Hard, have seen Willis either phoning in his roles, or giving performances that verge on self-parody – and sometimes both at the same time. His bland turn as a homicide cop (imagine!) in Fire With Fire is among the least of all of them, a performance not so much phoned in as left on a Post-It note on the director’s fridge.
The action kicks off as Long Beach fireman Jeremy Coleman (Transformers’ Josh Duhamel) escapes from a bloody convenience store holdup, resulting in the deaths of two of his friends, and leaving him as the sole eyewitness. Local homicide detective Mike Cella (Bruce Willis) catches the case, surprised to find that one of the killers, Southern crime lord David Hagan (Vincent D’Onofrio), is already in custody. Cella and Hagan have history, the latter having murdered Cella’s partner and partner’s wife; yet the crime boss somehow remains untouchable: if Coleman doesn’t testify, he will get away with murder once again. Cella offers Coleman a place in the witness protection program, and he is duly relocated to New Orleans, where he begins a relationship with his handler, US Marshal Talia Durham (Rosario Dawson). It isn’t long before Hagan and other barely-sketched bad guys track them down and start shooting, putting Talia in the hospital and Coleman on the warpath, buying himself a gun (luckily, Talia taught him to shoot before the bad guys showed up) and hunting down Hagan with extreme prejudice. He’s a lover and a fighter, see. A firefighter. And he’s about to fight – you guessed it – fire with fire.
Aside from being the kind of low-rent action fare that includes dialogue like “If I don’t get you out of Long Beach by 6pm, he’s gonna put your face on the wire!”, and names Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson among its thirty-five producers (and no, it wasn’t crowd-funded), Fire With Fire is also the kind of low-rent action fare that usually goes straight to DVD. It’s strange, therefore, that Warner Bros have gone to the trouble and expense of releasing it into cinemas. (Equally odd, considering the target audience, are the slo-mo shots of Duhamel soaping himself in the shower; although such homo-eroticism is not uncommon among direct-to-DVD action films, in which muscular men regularly fight each other with their shirts off, it seems particular blatant here.) Aside from the pointlessly wide 2.35:1 cinematography – a strange choice of format, given how little there is going on in each frame – there is nothing here that suggests a cinema release, unless Warner Bros is under the illusion that millions flocked to Transformers to see Josh Duhamel, rather than giant fighting robots.
Despite the robust supporting cast (Richard Schiff, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Vinnie Jones, Nip/Tuck’s Julian McMahon and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson also put in appearances), Duhamel is largely required to carry the film by himself, which is obviously a mistake. Nobody hires Duhamel for his acting skills; they hire him because Mark Wahlberg, Timothy Olyphant and even Johnny Knoxville were not available. Duhamel tries desperately to play angry when barely-sketched bad guys threaten the girl he met five minutes earlier, but he’s never convincing, acting like someone tired of being on hold to the electric company, rather than being shot at, hunted down, and beaten up.
To be fair, people watch films like Fire With Fire for the action, not the acting, but even here it falls flat, despite the fact that director David Barrett is a former stuntman with a long history of episodic TV work, often in the action and crime genres. Despite the spark of a good idea (an ordinary guy goes up against serious criminals), Fire With Fire is a damp squib that fizzles and fails to ignite. ★★