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Fire on the Amazon: Unrated DVD Review

Fire on the Amazon: Anchor Bay's Unrated DVD cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Fire on the Amazon

Running Time: 78 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated (Original Cut: R) / Video Debut: Indeterminate

Director: Louis Llosa / Writers: Margo Blue (Luana Anders), Catherine Cyran, Beverly Gray

Cast: Sandra Bullock (Alyssa Rothman), Craig Sheffer (R.J. O'Brien), Juan Fernandez (Ataninde), Judith Chapman (Sandra), Ramsey Ross (Pistoleiro), David Elkin (Lucavida), Jorge Garcia Bustamante (Valdez), Baldomero Caceres (Pedro), Carlos Victoria (Miguel), Reynaldo Arenas (Djamori), Ramon Garcia (Chato), Eduardo Cesti (Rafael Santos), Natalia Torres (Nanci Santos), Graciela Cahuas (Santos' Daughter Gloria), David Killerby (Father Benacio), Edwin Mayer (Pedrosa), Lourdes Mindreau (Woman at the Bar)

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired; Not Closed Captioned; Extra Not Subtitled
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5) / Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Suggested Retail Price: $14.98; Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($17.98 SRP)

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Before she was the Academy Award-winning star of The Blind Side, and before she was the leading lady of such certifiable 1990s hits as Speed, A Time to Kill, and While You Were Sleeping, Sandra Bullock was just a twentysomething actress struggling to make it in Hollywood. That is exactly the kind of person that makes a film for longtime B-movie producer Roger Corman (Death Race 2000, 1960's The Little Shop of Horrors), a man who has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood before they were big.

Bullock and her then more famous leading man Craig Sheffer (Some Kind of Wonderful) were both seemingly on the verge of bigger things. Her Demolition Man (with Corman alum Sylvester Stallone) and his Robert Redford-directed A River Runs Through It
(in which he was billed before Brad Pitt) both would be released in between the 1990 filming and supposed, widely accepted 1993 general distribution (which may not have actually happened until 2000) of Fire on the Amazon.

Corman's productions, which number over 400 to date, tend to be genre fare that can only succeed commercially because they cost next to nothing to make. Despite this, the illustrious Corman library keeps changing hands with fanfare. In 2005, Disney announced an 8-year distribution deal with Corman's Concorde-New Horizons company. That arrangement was evidently dissolved just a few years later, with all of Disney's Corman DVDs going out of print and Shout! Factory establishing a new partnership in 2009. Somehow, Fire on the Amazon returns to retail on January 18th not from Shout!, but from Anchor Bay Entertainment, who also makes it the tenth Corman movie to turn up on Blu-ray Disc. (If you're keeping score, it follows Cyclops, Death Race, Rock 'N Roll High School, Death Race 2000, Galaxy of Terror, Forbidden World, Piranha, Humanoids from the Deep, and Starcrash. The Syfy original movie Sharktopus will become #11 when it comes to disc in March.)

Though second-billed and quite small on the DVD cover, Craig Sheffer's dreamy American photojournalist R.J. O'Brien is in fact the protagonist of "Fire on the Amazon." Preservationist Alyssa Rothman (Sandra Bullock) resents R.J.'s (Craig Sheffer) invocation of Mexican cuisine to refer to Bolivia's rainforest problem.

Filmed in real South American locations (with Brazil standing in for Bolivia), Fire on the Amazon (at some point titled Lost Paradise) opens with the murder of Rafael Santos, the leader of a passive resistance movement to protect the rainforest. While the area's giant trees are being chopped and burned down, some people refuse to let it happen, joining Santos in his cause. His death raises questions, some of them asked by American photojournalist R.J. O'Brien (Sheffer).

Taken hostage by a pursued suspect in the killing, R.J. gets arrested. When said suspect turns up hanged, R.J. begins questioning the authorities' official account of Santos' death and that of his supposed killer. Upon his release, R.J. is joined by Alyssa Rothman (Bullock), a fellow American who is dedicated to the cause of rainforest preservation. The two find their independent investigation to be a dangerous one, as shots are fired, canoes tipped, and knives held to their necks. Can R.J. and Alyssa discover the truth? Can they trust anyone? Can they even stay alive long enough to make a difference? These are the questions that Fire asks and answers.

R.J.'s (Craig Sheffer) inquisitive nature and eagerness to photograph do not make him popular with the local police like Sanchez, who questions him as a suspect in front of a stained glass window. The primal scene for which "Fire on the Amazon" is best remembered (the very one that made an R rating unobtainable) involves body paint and licking.

I knew that Fire on the Amazon had a terrible reputation. Among Sandra Bullock's 41 film credits, only one (1987's Hangmen) has a lower user rating on IMDb and just barely. So, I was surprised to find Fire remain watchable and not particularly bad as it made its way to its brief 78-minute runtime.
There is a hint of intrigue to the story of Americans engulfed in international mystery. The acting and setup is decent and the film reminded me a little bit of Oliver Stone's well-regarded Salvador with its photojournalist in Latin America story and use of Dominican actor Juan Fernández in a supporting role.

Such thoughts and comparisons do not last. Before long, the film seems more notable as a showcase of early '90s fashions than anything else. Sheffer epitomizes grungy '90s cool with his shaggy blonde ponytail, earrings, and largely unbuttoned oversized shirts. Not to be outdone, Bullock rocks a fanny pack with her white dress shirt tucked into her jeans. The two characters are fairly bland and incompatible, even though the film clearly intends otherwise. Disregarding the poor chemistry, it delivers a substance-fueled sex scene for which the film seems to be most remembered.

That is the beginning of the movie's sharp descent, which comes to illuminate how Fire could earn a 3.3 rating on IMDb way outside the 5.0-8.0 range most movies fall into. The action-packed final act moves the film into ridiculousness with nonsensical twists and turns paving the path towards dissatisfaction. By the climax, the viewer realizes the movie isn't about the rainforest or the opening assassination or about anything beyond routine foreign country menace. In spite of this, Fire has the nerve to end with a statement about the severity of rainforest devastation, as if this afterthought of social conscience will make up for the misjudgments that have preceded it.

According to the MPAA website, Fire on the Amazon received an R rating back in 1991 (when it was first screened at festivals). According to IMDb, the film was recut in 1996 (by which point Bullock was a real movie star) to add 31 seconds to "the steamy love scene." The latter is an unrated version and though I assumed the MPAA wouldn't hesitate to slap it an R after being paid the current $2,500 to $25,000 submission fees, a 2000 Entertainment Weekly report claims Corman's extended cut was to merit a commercially unviable NC-17 rating. The sex scene is significant to some because Bullock has avoided them throughout her career. Even so, though purportedly nude and supposedly wearing nothing more than duct tape, you don't see anything of hers that could be classified as nudity. To put other years out there for your consideration, the film carries a 1998 copyright date here and EW suggests it wasn't available until its 2000 DVD debut.

Anchor Bay's release is Fire's fourth on DVD. Out of them, this is the second to offer the unrated cut.

Dominican actor Juan Fernández (full name Juan de Jesus Fernández de Alarcon) plays Ataninde, a tribal leader who distrusts white people. This socially responsible closing message is a non sequitur following the movie's nonsensical finale.

VIDEO and AUDIO

It's also the first of the four DVDs to present the movie in widescreen. One doesn't expect much from a 20-year-old Roger Corman movie, but this 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer looks surprisingly good. The framing rarely evokes any suspicion. Colors are good and the element remains clean. Some shots are marred by grain, but far fewer than you'd expect for something with a presumably six-digit budget.

The movie has also been fitted with its first Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Previously heard only in basic stereo, the movie is unexpectedly potent in this remix. It's big on Amazonian atmosphere with birds and bugs getting heard from all around you plus some directional effects thrown in for good measure. I can only imagine the limited materials Anchor Bay had to work with here, which makes the pleasant ambience all the more impressive. One thing that isn't and can't easily be fixed are moments where the film seems underlooped (a Bullock line that is basically inaudible, Sheffer expletive exclamations that are seen but not heard). If I was a fan of the film, I'd be quite pleased with this presentation, regardless of the humble origins.

The included video trailer for "Fire on the Amazon" contains some pretty fancy title animation. The titular Amazonian fire may not feature much in the film, but it does enliven the DVD's main menu montage.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Though the case doesn't mention it, the DVD includes a 16:9-enhanced trailer (2:38) for the movie. As it cites Anaconda (also directed by Luis Llosa), this ridiculous promo can be no older than 1997, four years after the movie's supposed video debut. The only other bonus features that have ever accompanied Fire on the Amazon -- trailers for other Corman flicks and cast & crew bios -- are not retained here.

The DVD opens with trailers for the 2010 I Spit on Your Grave and The Bleeding.

The ordinary main menu runs a scored montage of scenes.

Dirty and wounded but not defeated, Alyssa (Sandra Bullock) and R.J. (Craig Sheffer) have their eyes opened by a tribal autopsy.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Fire on the Amazon isn't as bad as its reputation led me to expect,
but its ludicrous second half does undo any promise and competence it displays before that. There are many a 1990s film I would love to see treated to a disc with as strong a feature presentation as Anchor Bay's here. Even limiting myself to movies featuring Juan Fernández and the Amazon, Arachnophobia springs to mind. While it seems awfully unfair that something as widely disdained as Fire gets an upgrade (on both DVD and Blu-ray, to boot) while every other studio seems to have given up on all but the biggest catalog draws, the few who consider themselves fans of this pre-fame Sandra Bullock flick should be quite pleased.

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Reviewed January 10, 2011.



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