September 25, 2013

Castle Rock Cash-In presents... Firestarter 2: Rekindled

This is a tie-in to Angelle Tusa's Castle Rock Companion series, which explores the cinematic adaptations of the works of Stephen King. Her review of Firestarter can be found here.

Documents relating to the Lot 6 experiment have been released to the public thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, but have been quietly tucked away in library archives instead of creating a media scandal. Nonetheless, a class action lawsuit from the experiment's survivors is quickly launched and settled, and the legal firm for which Vincent Sforza (Danny Nucci) works is tasked with tracking down everyone else related to the experiment so the settlement earnings can be properly processed. Following a paper trail to the basement of the late Dr. Wanless (Freddie Jones in the first film), Vincent encounters a secretive young woman named Tommy (Marguerite Moreau), who's also rooting through the files to dig deeper into the actual drugs used in the trials.

To get a few revelations out of the way, Tommy is, of course, Charlie McGee, and Vincent's firm is a front for a corporation which recovered all of the Lot 6 research and furthered it all the way to Lot 23, which has led to a new batch of powered super-children, all under the leadership of a still alive, yet horribly scarred, John Rainbird (Malcolm McDowell). The corporation is developing these kids as an unbeatable strikeforce, and before they move forward, the class action lawsuit is used as a ruse to hunt down and silence the remaining Lot 6 subjects.

Which of course leads to a lot of running. This mini-series runs for 3 hours, and I swear 20 minutes of it are just these long stretches of Charlie and Vincent running. Running through streets, running up and down stairs, in and out of corridors. They aren't even being chased most of the time, with the bad guys just standing there waiting for them to stop running.

Despite the DVD having a "2" slapped on the title, this isn't so much a sequel to the earlier film as it is an overall franchise reboot. In the first half, we get copious flashbacks to the timeline of that film, with Charlie's father on the run with her, Charline cutting lose with the fire at the farmhouse, and she being both befriended and studied by Rainbird, but very little of it actually plays out they way it did in '84. Rainbird is no longer a powerful, Native American enforcer who just wants to kill (though there is still that, oddly), but was one of the controlling heads of the entire line of experiments. The death of Charlie's father is while he's tied to a chair and stabbed in the temple instead of in the shootout at the ranch, so this is definitely an Amazing Spider-Man situation where they take steps back instead of just moving forward.

And it's... uneven in where it chooses to go. I've heard that this was intended to be a back-door pilot for an ongoing TV series (it was produced by USA, who was airing the very successful Dead Zone show at the time), but I don't see it. We end with Charlie and the other children still alive, but everyone else has been taken care of. The other Lot subjects. Raintree and the other main bad guys. Vincent is also stabbed in the temple with Rainbird's little bladed tube weapon. There's room to do a sequel, sure, but almost everything they setup is resolved by the end.

If anything, it feels like they took various moments from 2-3 seasons worth of planned storylines and stitched them together as a single story, with all the running being the connective threads. The tracking down of former Lot members, with one, Mary (the awful Debora Van Valkenburgh) even going to the feds, who believe her and look into it, until Rainbird uses the Children to erase their minds and gun Mary down. Charlie's quickly dropped search for which drugs were used in the trial as she hopes to find a cure. The plot by the corporation to recreate a small town so as to use the Children for a bank heist, aka test them in a strategic operation. Dennis Hopper showing up as a mentor figure in the form of a Lot subject who's become unstuck from his perception of time, meaning he experiences his own past, present, and future all at once (think Dr. Manhattan).

These are interesting threads, but they feel under-explored here, popping in for a blip before we're running again. And a lot of it doesn't even make any sense. Vincent's brother is targeted by the corporation, but when he gets away, he continues living in his home and visiting his dad in the hospital without agents ever setting down on him. Rainbird wants to expand beyond a bank robbery to destroying an entire small down... because? It's hinted he wants to show Charlie her true potential, but all that death and mayhem does is put the situation outside his control, so there's no surprise when it backfires on him. The corporation wants to keep this out of federal hands, despite showing their bank books have complete control over federal oversight. And, hey, they have kids who can erase minds.

The kids aren't a bad element. Half of them can't act and are told to just stand there and look menacing, but having one of them be the great Dan Byrd makes up for it. You've got a pair of telekinetics who like to play pingpong without paddles, a blind kid who can see everything everywhere, and one with a banshee style sonic scream. The two main kids, who are always vying for alpha leadership of the pack, are Byrd as a bullying sadist with the same mind control powers as Charlie's dad (though differing in that his don't require him to always clutch his temples), the other a quiet sociopath who's an energy sponge, who quickly develops a thirst for Charlie's flames. The scenes with the kids are definitely among the highlights of the show, as they're used strategically well, and I like that there's dissent within the ranks which helps quietly develop them as characters.

As for why they're all boys, it's flatly said that Rainbird didn't want to work with girls anymore so he wouldn't get distracted again. So yes, they have taken the pedophilic undertones of the first film and giving him a full on chubby for Charlie, so subtly demonstrated for us as he sniffs her underwear and perishes while making out with her. Malcom McDowell isn't bad in the part, he's just... he's Malcolm McDowell. He's a captivating skeeze bag doing little but be a captivating skeeze bag. He has none of the physical power George C. Scott brought to his performance, so they don't even try, instead just making him as big of a mustache twirling Snidley Whiplash as they can. He's fun to watch, there just isn't much to his character. His makeup, with half his body and face being covered in ugly burn scars, isn't bad, but Malcolm forgets to limp half the time, and it doesn't really give him any more presence than he has just being Malcolm McDowell.

On the flip side of the coin, Marguerite Moreau is fantastic as Charlie. She's so used to keeping people at a distance and dropping into new identities that, when Vincent tells her "You can't keep running forever", her reply is "Why not?" She has no roots, nobody to relate to, nobody to always rely on to be at the other end of a phone. Rainbird offers her stability and purpose, but only by having created the situation she's running from in the first place and removing from her choice and free will. It's nice to see that she's been alone for so long that she momentarily considers going back to what she's fought so hard to escape, but true to her character, she'd rather live free with the chaos of the flames. Moreau is great at capturing both the fragility and strength of Charlie, as well as the ethical conundrum of knowing people will die when she cuts loose, so she better be damn sure she's okay with that when she does. There's also an interesting element of sexual frustration to the character, as the two times she gets into intimate encounters, the heat of the moment starts translating into literal heat off of her, and she has to skip out before she can go any further.

Sadly, a captivating lead doesn't make for a captivating film. I would very definitely compare this to The Rage: Carrie 2, which also had a great actress playing a very interesting lead role, she was just sadly surrounded by such sloppy writing and poor filmmaking that it ultimately wasn't worth it for her alone. Here, my eyes are locked on Charlie (the fact I had a huge crush on Moreau since back in the Mighty Ducks days didn't hurt), but even a shining performance has a hard time glowing through poor setups, lousy editing, all that running, and other plot threads that distract more than they do contribute. The bits where she cuts loose with the fire are pretty good, even though they're just as overly long as they are in the '84 film, and much of the flame is in the form of layers of late-90s CGI fire, which is pink and purple at times and just doesn't look good.

So no, I ultimately can't recommend it. There are some bits I like, some great ideas, Danny Nucci has a charming boyish innocence that makes him an endearing co-lead, and as a recent convert to the soap All My Children, I was thrilled to see Darnell Williams in a great supporting role as Vincent's co-worker who's really the hitman taking out all the people Vincent is tracking down. But the mini-series is ultimately a mess, and a boring one at that.

That said, I would like to see someone take another stab at something like this down the road. Firestarter had a great mythos full of potential avenues a series could explore, and doing so in a TV series with an older Charlie is something I'd be interested in watching. I just want to see it in better hands with a better sense of goals in mind. And maybe be a little more faithful to the source material while they're at it.

Castle Rock series index.


Bryant Burnette said...

This isn't much of a movie, but I've definitely seen worse. As you say, Moreau is good, and so there's that if absolutely nothing else.

I'd forgotten that a lot of it consisted of semi-reboot material. I wonder why they didn't begin with an actual reboot? Seems like if they'd just spent a little more money and stretched it into three or four nights, they could have.

Oh, well. I have no doubt that "Firestarter" will get remade one of these days. I'm all for it, actually. I just hope it's taken seriously, and not treated like a cash-in, like this one was.

Angie Tusa said...

I like your theory of them smooshing entire season's plots into one mini-series. It certainly felt to me that this was something that could have easily been trimmed down to make it less of a mess anyway. There were points where it was starting to feel like an endurance test to get through it, and that's considering I was taking breaks doing chores throughout the day.

Dennis Hopper's character could easily have been removed without missing anything, as could have the whole bit with Mary. I found the kids a little more annoying than you did, but I'll admit I've seen much worse elsewhere. It was a good enough story idea at least, though all that building up with the one kid who absorbs energy could have had a more satisfying climax. I never really felt like he was much of a threat anyway.

Moreau did make for a good lead, and it's a shame she wasn't given better material. I also really loved the purple jacket they put on her. Danny Nucci is an actor I remember from lots of his small parts in the 80s, and it was fun to see him take the co-lead here, even if there were points where it felt like he was just there because they thought it might be boring to have Charlie on her own.

I'll be curious to see if 1) The Shop TV series ever gets off the ground and 2) if Firestarter will feature heavily in that or not. Seems like a no brainer anyway.

NoelCT said...

I'm definitely curious about the Shop show, too, especially how all the rights for involved works will or won't allow them to tie in.

But yeah, so many threads that, if they didn't have an ongoing, just don't need to be here at all. Make a leaner story, Charlie searching through the paper trail of records, finds someone launching a parallel examination while also trying to erase them, leads her to discover a new company has relaunched the study with a new batch of kids, midpoint of the film is her breaking in to save the kids only to discover they're bad and don't want to be rescued, second half plays out ensuing conflict as she tries to upset their debut mission. Would have made a nice, tight, interesting sequel. Still hoping for another stab at something similar down the road.