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Fire with Fire (1986); Review by Robin Franson Pruter

fire_with_fireOriginally released 9 May 1986
Screenplay by Bill Phillips and Warren Scaaren and Paul Boorstin & Sharon Boorstin
Directed by Duncan Gibbins

Starring Virginia Madsen, Craig Sheffer, Jon Polito, and Jean Smart

My rating: ★★ 1/2 stars

Enjoyable forbidden love teen romance hampered by a disastrous last 20 minutes.

Fire with Fire is three quarters entertaining, above average teen romance, and one quarter complete disaster. The faults in this movie are entirely at the script level. I’m surprised that, among the four writers, not one of them realized that the third act makes the Hindenburg look like a fender-bender.

The story of a wealthy girl from a Catholic boarding school, Lisa (Virginia Madsen), and a poor boy from the local juvenile reform camp, Joe (Craig Sheffer), falling in love and facing obstacles in getting together is not fresh. Forbidden love between young people from different worlds is probably one of the oldest stories there is. Yet, it’s generally reliable. We viewers like to root for young love to conquer adversity. The social, emotional, cultural, sexual, and, particularly in this case, physical boundaries between lovers heighten the sense of romance, which comes from desire straining to be fulfilled.

What makes this iteration of the story a cut above some others is the appeal of the leads. Madsen and Sheffer have long been interesting and underused performers. Sheffer does brooding sensitivity very well, but Madsen is the real star of this movie. She projects intelligence and a wonderful quiet joy. They are also, obviously very attractive, and the movie makes no attempt to polish their looks, letting Sheffer’s monobrow go unplucked and allowing Madsen’s halo of blonde hair to run wild.

The love story in the film, however, lacks development in some ways. Joe and Lisa have very little interaction before they fall head over heels in love. I have some difficulty in fathoming this notion of love at first sight. Although they encounter each other in passing, they have no real interaction until Lisa’s school, upon Lisa’s suggestion, hosts a dance for the boys at the reform camp. I credit the writers with making the first conversation between the two one of substance. The viewers get a sense that this encounter is meaningful, that they get to know each other as people. The conversation is followed by a slow dancing scene, where the two appear to discover physical chemistry for the first time.

The dance scene is a lot more realistic than most high school dance scenes where the moves look choreographed (even if it’s not a big dance number), all the girls look beautiful with perfect hair and dresses,  and all the male extras look like they were chosen as eye-candy for the female viewers. Here, all the extras look ordinary, the dancing is all a little awkward, and the girls, with the exception of star Madsen, look like they did their own hair.

Madsen and Sheffer have strong chemistry together. The title and promotional materials promise a film of smoldering intensity, but the film, instead, presents a pleasantly PG-13 version of sexuality. The scene were Joe breaks into Lisa’s dorm room is one of the sexiest scenes that I’ve seen where both characters have their clothes on—perhaps, it is so sexy because the characters have their clothes on.

In addition to the strong appeal of the two leads, the film is helped by a strong supporting cast. Stage veteran Kate Reid provides gravity as the school’s mother superior in an underwritten role, and film buffs might recognize b-movie femme fatale Ann Savage as an elderly nun, returning to the screen after a 30-year absence. The most prominent role among the nuns, Sister Maria, goes to Jean Smart, who adds an intriguing sense of knowingness to another underwritten role. I found myself wanting to know more about what Sister Maria is thinking, and I wish she had had more opportunity to reflect on the happenings in the film.

Among the guards and prisoners, Tim Russ, David Harris, D.B. Sweeney, and William G. Schilling provide strong support. But J.J. Cohen (as Jeffrey Jay Cohen) is the real standout as Joe’s best buddy, The Mapmaker. Initially, I found it overly convenient for the plot that Joe would have a friend with an interest in cartography. However, when I thought about it, I realized that it made perfect sense for a 1980s geek stuck in a juvenile reform camp with no access to comic books, computers, collectible action figures and trading card games, to latch onto an esoteric hobby like cartography.

The only supporting player who is really bad is Jon Polito as the reform camp director and main adversary. It’s not Polito’s fault. His character is written as a bad imitation of Strother Martin’s in Cool Hand Luke. I expected him to pull Joe aside at one point and expound on their “failure to communicate.”

And, then, the movie tumbles into preposterousness. The third act features a grand escape, a house burning down, a helicopter chase, and a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-esque jump off a cliff. The reason for the film suddenly turning into an action movie of ever more ludicrous proportions is most likely that the writers didn’t know how to end it—because, in reality, these two characters would never end up together. It’s not like Joe would ever follow Lisa to finishing school in Switzerland. So the writers created a ludicrous fantasy ending where Joe and Lisa can be together. However, the ending didn’t have to be quite so ludicrous. There has to be an ending that, if not realistic, is at least better than what the writers came up with.

When the film was released, many of the reviews criticized music video director Duncan Gibbins for employing an “MTV aesthetic.” None of those reviews, however, explained why this was a bad thing. I think the music video sensibility improves the pacing of the film and gives it a strong nostalgic appeal for people who appreciate the style of 1980s films.

I can’t give this movie a recommendation. The majority of the film would earn three stars for being enjoyable, particularly for fans of teen romance. But the positive elements of the film are not strong enough to outweigh the negatives.


Joe first notices Lisa when she’s recreating John Everett Millais’s painting “Ophelia” for a photography project. When Joe sees a copy of the original painting on display in the school’s hallway, he stops and stares at it. Jon Polito’s boss character mocks him for liking “pretty pictures.” Joe says that he only likes “Impressionism.” However, Millais was not an Impressionist; he was a Pre-Raphaelite. I suppose we should at least give Joe credit for knowing that Impressionism was a movement in painting, but it still bugs me.


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