Fire with Fire

Growing up as a teenager in the 80’s was great!  I really think that part of the reason I became so much more interested in movies as a teen was that there were just so many movies targeted at teens in the 80’s.  The teen comedies, a la John Hughes, tend to be the ones remembered as classics…but there were many others.  Today’s movie is a romantic teen drama that came and went from theaters rather quickly in 1986…”Fire with Fire.”

Joe Fisk (Craig Sheffer) is a juvenile delinquent with a heart of gold (aren’t they all) who is doing time at a “parole camp” tucked away in the mountains.  It’s not exactly a prison, there are no bars, no fences, but the jumpsuits and guards with shotguns does tend to present that sort of atmosphere.

Of course, what would a “parole camp” for wayward teenage boys be without an all-girl Catholic school nearby?  The best and brightest student at that school is Lisa Taylor (Virginia Madsen), who has excelled despite her absentee parents who have dumped her at this school while they live la vida loca in exotic locations around the globe. Lisa has a bit of an interest in photography, and one day she goes out into the forest to stage a photo of herself wearing a white dress and laying in pond…mimicking a painting in a hallway of the school.  Of course, Joe happens upon her and is immediately struck by this vision of beauty.  She sees him too, but doesn’t let on.

Later, Lisa and Joe spot each other again.  This time, it’s when Lisa and a friend happen to go to the movies at the same time the prison boys have been given a little R&R to take in the latest Friday the 13th flick.  Now that’s the way to rehabilitate a bunch of young violent crooks…give ‘em some Jason Voorhees machete action.  Anyhow, the two see each other, but, of course, they can’t actually meet.

Luckily, Lisa has a plan.  It’s the time of the year when the girls and the school devote some attention to a charity project.  The last several years have involved sending clothes to people in Africa, but Lisa proposes that they do something that would benefit people in their area…rather than halfway around the world.  Her suggestion: that they host a dance and invite the boys from the parole camp to be their guests.  Well, this is met with great approval from the girls, so Sister Marie (Jean Smart) reluctantly agrees.

When the night of the dance finally arrives, things start a bit shaky, but soon the kids all begin enjoying themselves.  They all dance to Prince, the theme from “Fletch,” and, oddly enough, songs that have the same title as the film they’re all in.  This all comes courtesy of a reel-to-reel tape player…really!?

It takes awhile, but soon Lisa and Joe find each other and spend the night dancing and getting to know each other.  By the time the last slow dance rolls around, these two look about ready to tear each other’s clothes off right there on the gym floor.  But the mean prison boss, Duchard (Jon Polito), breaks things up.  Unfortunately, Joe can’t write letters or call, and Lisa can only get calls from her parents.  Still, Lisa slips Joe her phone number and hints at her father’s name, Frank, so Joe can try to sneak calls posing as her father.

The couple arrange for secret meetings at a local cemetery where the prison boys do lawn work and, before long, the two are sneaking out at night to meet each other.  This culminates in the two making love in a crypt one night at the cemetery.  But the romance is rudely interrupted when Duchard bursts in with a shotgun.  Both are dragged off…Joe is locked up and arrangements are made for Lisa’s parents to pick her up.  But with a little help from his pal Myron (Jeff J Cohen), Joe busts out and grabs Lisa…with the fuzz in hot pursuit.

“Fire with Fire” is a silly story, I admit.  I guess as an old fart pushing 41, I look at these films where seventeen year olds fall into deep passionate, meaningful, forever love and roll my eyes.  Still, I enjoyed “Fire with Fire.”  There’s something about it that definitely pulls you in as a viewer.  I think a big part of that is Virginia Madsen.  She is absolutely luminous in this role and her performance is believable…never over-the-top, which is often the case with teen love stories.  This ain’t “Twilight” folks!

The film does have some weak spots.  It’s a bit uneven in terms of the two sides of the story, spending much more time with Sheffer’s prison kid.  Lisa is set up as being the model student, but there is nothing about how this forbidden love affair affects her.  There’s not enough struggle on her side of things.  It also feels like there are elements of the prison side of the story that may have been left out of the story.  Other than the stereotypical mean, fat, balding guard Duchard, there is a bit more kindly guard played by future Star Trek Vulcan Tim Russ.  His character is interesting, but a bit underused.  I fear much of his part may have been left on the cutting room floor.

Perhaps the weakest aspect of the film is it’s score, composed by the usually dependable Howard Shore.  Many scenes seem to use a sappy, often-repeated, theme that, I kid you not, seems to have been based on the melody of the Corey Hart single “Never Surrender.”  It, seriously, grates at the viewer after a while.  But a musical savior comes in the form great selection of 80’s pop tunes that make up a lot of the soundtrack.

Teen love stories are usually not my thing…even ones from the 80’s.  But “Fire with Fire” has a certain irresistible quality to it…maybe I am a hopeless romantic after all.

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