VIDEO ARCHIVES NOTES: This movie was discussed on the May 23, 2023 episode of the Video Archives podcast.
Cannon had a great strategy back when they were making $5 million on a movie just based on the video, TV and foreign sales. It meant that as long as a movie cost around $2 million, they made money. It didn’t even matter if the films did well, as long as they played theaters for a week or two.
That said, they did have some success stories, mostly involving the movies of the two Chucks: Norris and Bronson.
Starting with Death Wish 2, a sequel to a movie made in the previous decade that it seemed like no one — except the fans of Bronson — wanted to make. But when Michael Winner and Bronson teamed up again, it was big box office. Cannon sold the distribution rights to Filmways in the U.S., the company that had just bought American-International Pictures, and figured that a Bronson revengeomatic sequel fit right in with their existing lineup of exploitation classics. Columbia Pictures bought it for international sales — it made $29 million worldwide — and Paramount bought the domestic TV. When the movie came out in February of 1982, it was number one for its opening week and made $16 million in the U.S.
Cannon cashed in.
They also were smart to sign up Chuck Norris after Missing In Action — actually, the second one comes before the first, but that’s a whole different story — became such a hit for them.
These were critic proof movies, ones where it didn’t matter what Pauline Kael said or if Siskel and Ebert picked it as a dog of the week. Bronson and Norris fans would come out and watch their films, rent them when they hit video and watch them again and again on cable.
And for four movies, the two Chucks had another member of the team.
Throughout the 70s, Rick Dalton would mostly show up as a special guest start on shows like Cade’s County and Banacek. Sure, he’s in The Deadly Trackers with William Smith and is amazing as Don Stober in Grizzly. But by and large, his days as a leading man seemed to be over. I remember thinking that he was just a friend of Johnny Carson who would randomly show up on The Tonight Show and make Ed heartily chortle with his stories until my uncle told me all about his cowboy roles.
Yet when Rick got to the 80s, he was able to reinvent himself yet again, combining the nostalgic tough guy act of Bronson and the hard working appeal to the common man of Norris when he made The Fireman for AVCO Embassy 1981. As a Vietnam vet turned cop who learns just how corrupt the NYPD is — but not before they kill his partner, Washington (an impossible young Samuel Jackson) — he decides to go from law enforcement to first responder of sorts, donning a flamethrower and getting revenge by setting most of New York City ablaze. And he’s the good guy in a movie that seems so scuzzy you’d swear Rick was someone who made movies like Ms. 45 and Don’t Go In the House instead of your mom’s first. crush.
It works, though, mostly because the public never forgot that once pulled his actual working flamethrower from The 14 Fists of McCluskey out of his garage to defend his home from some hippies, an act that got the lifelong Democrat a first class trip to visit the Nixon White House. Seeing him use a very similar weapon of death in this has the kind of exploitation edge that makes movie weirdos like me salivate.
Rick believed in this project because it gave him a chance to work with stuntman Cliff Booth, who had doubled for him for years. Rick produced and directed this movie with Cliff handling what he knew best, the action.
You know who loves this movie? You guessed it. Quentin Tarantino. He said, “Cliff Booth in 1979 or ’80, wrote a vigilante exploitation movie for Rick … Rick read it and goes, “We can do this better,” so Rick rewrites it and the two of them are going to produce it, they get the money, and it’s a vigilante movie called The Fireman. The lead character was in the Vietnam War — it’s very similar to The Exterminator — he became a cop and then he started seeing this whole group of bad apple cops that are killing guys and are completely corrupt. And they end up killing his partner, played by a very young Samuel L. Jackson. The film becomes a real big hit, and that makes Rick, he gets a third career, going into the ’80s, as a straight to video action star.”
Imagine Rick’s surprise when Cannon Films came calling to make another one. Especially because they’d already made a movie that pissed him off, 1984’s Exterminator 2. It felt a bit too close to the movie he. made with Cliff for his taste, so he barely wanted to take a call from two Israelis in tracksuits. Imagine how he felt when the lunch meeting wasn’t at Musso and Franks or Taylor’s Steak House, but instead a hoagie and a bag of chips in their office.
Yet when they told him they could give him $4 million — and that they’d buy the rights to his movie from AVCO Embassy on top of that — he just had to laugh at Menahem’s fast talking ways, not to mention the fact that he drew out a contract on the greasy bag from a local sub shop.
That wasn’t the story he told on Johnny, however. Self-deprecating to a fault, he told the King of Late Night that he saw the Cannon name at the front of Bolero and figured they’d be interested in his movie, saying “I figure if they made that dog turd, they’d make my dog turd.”
Ed McMahon fell off the couch.
At this point, Rick and Cliff were excited to get the sequel signed off and started looking for talent so they could make the movie that they didn’t have the budget to make when they made The Fireman. At first, they went after bigger names with that $4 million budget. If you’re going to make an Arthur Hill action movie, get Arthur Hill, you know? They talked to him, Richard Fleischer (who did Red Sonja instead, to his chagrin), Richard Donner (shoot big) and George Bowers, but then what always happened with Cannon happened. They were flush with Missing In Action and Breakin’ cash when Rick signed his deal, but their next slate of movies wasn’t doing as well.
Who could do the film for less?
Menahem suggested former Bond director Peter Hunt and J. Lee Thompson, but out of respect for Bronson, Rick laughed off the latter suggestion. And he confided in Menahem that if Cliff was forced to work with Michael Winner, he’d probably kill him. It didn’t sound like a joke the way he said it. Sam Firstenberg and Rick had a great meeting, but he walked away telling him, “Why do you want me to make your movie when I’m just going to follow what Cliff did in your first one? You already have your director.”
And that’s how Cliff Booth, once a stuntman, then a second unit guy for exactly one movie ended up directing and writing The Fireman 2. While some fans love the first one more, I love that this seamlessly starts five minutes later — yeah, I bought that bootleg on a Facebook fan group where someone edited both movies together for one long The Fireman experience — and doesn’t lose an ounce of its edge when it moves the action from New York to Texas. And yeah, Donald Pleasence rarely said no to a movie, but this was the kind of movie where he shines (the Halloween influence is all over this; Rick considered Rick Rosenthal as a director until the Halloween II director confessed his intention to make a sequel to The Birds; Rick laughed about that until the movie actually played on Showtime and he just stared, pointing at the screen, beer growing warm in his hand).
And come on. Joe Don Baker hadn’t been that good in a movie since Golden Needles.
Just like Bronson and Norris, Rick took Hollywood by surprise. The Fireman 2 did well for a few weeks in theaters and drive-ins, but was a blockbuster on cable and in the home video market. But for Cannon, well, it was as big a deal as anything they’d made. Golan and Globus called Rick the Saturday after the movie opened, laughing — but perhaps also being serious — as they asked “Can you start shooting on Monday?”
The Fireman 3: CIA Crackdown wouldn’t happen that quickly. Rick wanted the kind of movie that would pay off the series while adding a bit more drama. Sure, it was the third movie, but he didn’t want to make the same movie over and over again.
It was worth the wait.
With Rick writing and starring, as well as an even more confident Cliff behind the camera, the third film throws you a curveball. Eddie Karpinski isn’t using that name anymore. He’s gone into hiding and is now living the kind of existence you could never have predicted after the first two films. Instead of POV shots of him burning muggers, the movie starts with the domestic bliss he’s found with Marisa (Anjanette Comer), a widow with a teenage son named Kirk (Stephen Dorff, a year after The Gate) and a dementia-addled father, Butch (Aldo Ray). They’re living in a fixer-upper on the outskirts of the suburbs and it seems like new developments are being built all around them.
Regency Realty, run by the company’s third-generation scion Dwight Regency (Wings Hauser), keeps making offers for the low middle class homes on our hero’s street. At first, they seem like any other real estate developer. But seeing how their agents are played by Michael Ironside, Robert Davi and Tracey Walter, you pretty quickly figure out that they’re not on the up and up.
Our hero finds out way too late, as his modest home — his reward for two movies of blasting bad guys like Richard Lynch and Billy Drago with napalm — goes up in flames. The cops say it was an accident, the insurance tries to pay it all off and everything is supposed to go away. But with his adopted son trapped in painful rehab, his wife ash and Butch dying a slow death — but not before an emotional scene where he grips The Fireman’s hand and says in his gravely voice, “I always knew who you were. But you were good enough for my Marisa. Now, I want you to be bad enough for her.” — it’s only a matter of time before the flamethrower comes out of its hiding space and the entire subdivison goes up in smoke.
But wait, you might ask. Where does the CIA part of the film’s title come in? It turns out that an agent near retirement named Carmine Bassi (John Saxon, as always, the perfect person for the role; he made this right before he directed the only movie he’d ever direct, Zombie Death House) is sent on a wild goose chase to bring in Karpinski. When he starts to notice that a Salt Lake City suburb is dealing with a rash of arson-based crimes and sightings of a man wielding an M2 flamethrower, he comes running. But by the end of the film, he starts to see no small part of himself in Eddie.
I’m not one of those people who write, “For a Cannon movie, this is pretty dramatic.” After all, it’s the same studio that made Maria’s Lovers, Runaway Train and gave Cassavetes a good budget to make Love Streams. It’s better than it has any right to be, to be perfectly frank, and it sends off The Fireman to the kind of retirement — and retribution — that he so rightly deserved.
That’s not saying that if Dalton had wanted to make one or two more of these I wouldn’t have bought a ticket, rented the movie and taped it off of HBO, however.
I was talking with Austin Trunick, writer of The Cannon Film Guide Volume I and The Cannon Film Guide Volume II, and as usual with all things Cannon, he blew my mind with an untold story.
“I wanted to send you a quick note to let you know that there was almost more to this saga. There was an ad for The Fireman 4: New Fire in the 21st Century Film Corp spread in Weekly Variety‘s AFM 1991 issue. Well, maybe “ad” is too strong a description — it’s just a title treatment, nothing more, no talent listed, with a dubious note that it was “In Pre-Production – Ready for Delivery Christmas ’91.” That’s all I’ve ever come across for that particular project, and I honestly have no clue if Dalton was involved at all or if Menahem even had the sequel rights at that point. I wouldn’t be shocked in the least if it was one of his typical “let’s announce it now and figure out the details later” sort of deals. Considering the ad didn’t use Dalton’s name to drum up foreign sales, that probably was the case.”
When do we get to see that movie?