Firepower's history is more interesting than the film itself, since it was originally intended for Clint Eastwood and its production nearly junked by Sir Lew Grade. This ITC actioner began as one of numerous 'Dirty Harry' scripts rejected by Eastwood and was later adjusted to the temperament of Charles Bronson, who backed out during pre-production. Having lost a major box office draw, Grade nearly called things off before he sensed a public relations disaster in the British tabloids and insisted that his film be made. Bronson's role as a top-shelf assassin went to James Coburn, who delivers in this frenetic story co-rewritten and directed by Michael Winner. The physically imposing Coburn joins Sophia Loren, O.J. Simpson, Eli Wallach, and Anthony Franciosa in a top cast who frolic amidst death and destruction in the Caribbean.
The plot of 'Firepower' is too complicated to explain here, with many twists and turns that become secondary to its large-scale action. To make a long story short, Coburn plays Jerry Fanon, a former assassin who is called out of retirement by mob boss Sal Hyman (Wallach). Hyman has worked out a deal with U.S. authorities to hire Fanon in exchange for waving his criminal charges. Fanon's job is to capture drug company magnate Karl Stegner (Franciosa), who arranged the murder of a physician after exposing his line of bad pharmaceuticals. Stegner is hiding on the small island of Antigua, living a reclusive life amidst security cameras, attack dogs, bodyguards, and informants. Behind the entire story is Adele Tasca (Loren), the doctor's widow and past lover of Fanon.
'Firepower' is not a film that will change your life, but it's one of the most purely entertaining titles I've recently seen. While this film is slow to develop, it takes off after the first 20 minutes with rapidly-paced action sets. The action is chuck-full of explosions, gunfire, and hand-to-hand combat. Coburn, teaming with O.J. Simpson (as fellow hit-man Catlett), uses a level-headedness and physical stature that are ideal for his role. Simpson is also physically and dramatically satisfying in a limited part. While on 'exhibit' for much of the film, Sophia Loren looks as beautiful as ever and keeps a wry sense of humor. Other familiar names make an appearance, including Vincent Gardenia ('Death Wish'), Victor Mature, and middleweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta.
This is certainly one of the best films that Michael Winner has made, yet it lacks his unique style. While his cheekiness is felt in the most violent situations, little is seen of the zooms, odd camera angles, and wobbles that are constant in his other movies. Winner is at his best in the action scenes, which are edited by the director under his pen name of Arnold Crust. The storyline eventually plays second fiddle to the action, but this film never loses its edge - like a pulp novel in overdrive.
The special effects by Al Griswold ('F/X,' 'Entrapment') and Paul Stewart ('Predator') are antique by today's standards, but were top-of-the line for the late 1970s and much more engaging then the CFI we're nowadays offered. The same outdatedness is found in Gato Barbieri's saxophone-laden score, although his opening theme sets the high-crime mood nicely and is never more conspicuous than it needs to be. Robert Paynter's cinematography appears to be right for the lush scenes in Antigua and Curaçao; it would look even better if not for the most recent VHS release.
For fans of James Coburn and Sophia Loren (who isn't?), 'Firepower' is a decent hour and 40 minutes of viewing time and worth a couple of dollars if VHS tapes are lying around on the Internet or at garage sales. 'Firepower' is not currently available in DVD format, which is a shame considering the excellent cast and exotic locations. CBS/FOX Video issued an American VHS release in 1983, an absolute massacre of the original studio print. Besides the usual full screen presentation, there is grain and faded colors that are usually found on cheap TV broadcasts. Daytime scenes have washed-out visuals, evening scenes are so dark that one can barely see what's going on. Much of this is owed to the videotape's age, but also the knockoff quality of reproduction by CBS/FOX. Considering that several of Michael Winner's films are now available on DVD, 'Firepower' is long overdue for an update.
*** out of 4