I’m someone who certainly enjoys sitting in front of a fireplace in winter, or around a firepit in the summer. Still, fire is something that is slightly scary to me. It’s just so unpredictable, and in the part of the world where I live, wildfires do happen from time to time. When my son was born eighteen years ago, my wife and I could look out of our hospital window and see a wildfire burning in the distance. It’s freaky stuff. Also freaky is the idea of someone who has the ability to create fire with their mind. The concept has been used in genre flicks from Firestarter to the X-Men films, but 1993’s Wilder Napalm is fairly simple romantic comedy, it just so happens that a few of the characters are pyrokinetic.
The film centers on Wilder Foudroyant (Arliss Howard), a quiet man working in a photo stand located in the parking lot of an otherwise-deserted shopping center. Arliss keeps his ability to start fires with his mind under wraps, even working as a volunteer fireman to help move away from his ability to burn things. He lives in a trailer with his wife Vida (Debra Winger), who is under house arrest due to arson charges, and is also a bit of a nymphomaniac. Enter Wilder’s brother, Wallace (Dennis Quaid), who works as a clown in a traveling carnival, and is also pyrokinetic. He plans on announcing his powers to the world on the David Letterman Show. The two brothers have always been at odds, stemming from a childhood incident where their powers caused the death of an innocent person. Oh, and of course, Wallace is also in love with Vida.
When Vida is finally released from the binds of her ankle monitor tracking device, she is anxious to spend time with her husband. He, however, is committed to calling the numbers for a BINGO game that night. This is the perfect opportunity for Wallace to move in for the kill. He takes Vida miniature golfing and things do get a bit “hot,” shall we say. When this is discovered by Wilder, it leads to a fiery showdown between the two brothers.
At its heart, Wilder Napalm is a simple love triangle story, but with some trippy elements that make it very unique. It utilizes a lot of small town America eccentricities to great effect. Things like traveling carnivals with their questionable safety standards and employees (one of whom is Jim Varney in this film), miniature golf, BINGO, and living in a trailer. This film even features a musically-inclined fire department whose members sing tunes, often related to heat or fire, as they battle blazes. In atypical Hollywood fashion, these staples of flyover country are presented with a loving visual style that makes them seem somewhat magical. The shots are colorful and creatively composed, with much of the story unfolding visually.
The film also benefits from a trio of well-rounded characters, brought to life with virtuoso performances. Arliss Howard’s Wilder is quiet and contemplative, and comes through as a very relatable character. Where many films would present Wilder as living a pathetic existence, he comes across as an honest and hardworking man, trying to be a good husband and a model citizen in what may be considered less-than-ideal circumstances. Dennis Quaid’s Wallce is brash and overconfident, a perfect fit for the wide-grinning actor. His moments in clown makeup are a highlight, juggling both the silly and the sinister. Debra Winger is luminous, as always, playing the sort of quirky free-spirit she excels at. There is no question as to why both brothers would be in love with her, despite her considerable issues.
From the performances, to the visuals, to the playful score by Michael Kamen, Wilder Napalm is a creative concoction that is something familiar but uniquely its own. If none of the rest of that sells you, this is a love-triangle movie where the two warring parties happen to be human flame-throwers and spend much of the film’s final act trying to burn each other to a crisp. That’s something I never knew I needed in my life.