The romance in Fire with Fire springs from a fundamentally laughable situation; namely, that a girl in a Catholic boarding school out in the hinterlands would fall in love with a boy in an honor detention camp, a relaxed prison that just happens to be located a few miles from the girls’ school.
Like many fundamentally laughable situations, this one reportedly is based on a true story. Oh well. That doesn’t make it any better, especially with the fictional finale the screenwriters have dreamed up.
Joe (Craig Sheffer) is running through the woods one day when he spots Lisa (Virginia Madsen) floating in a forest pool. She looks like a saint undergoing some religious ecstasy. He doesn’t know it, but she’s photographing herself in this position.
It’s love at first sight. But they don’t actually meet until Lisa engineers a school dance for the boys from the camp. Then the Romeo and Juliet business goes into full gear, and these two sense they are destined for something or other. As it happens, a few nights later they’re caught trysting in a crypt at the forest cemetery, and an escape into the woods (filmed in British Columbia) is necessary.
Most of this is goofy, as you can probably guess. In sheer terms of plot, it’s one unlikely event after another. My favorite plausibility-stretcher is the characterization of the prisoners; they come off like a bunch of happy-go-lucky fellows, out for a weekend camping trip. They don’t even use nasty language.
As unsatisfying as the script is, there’s a surprising degree of commitment on the part of director Duncan Gibbins, whose first feature this is. Gibbins plays everything as though it all actually mattered somehow. This provokes some unintentional laughter, but it’s an honest way to make movies. This attitude is particularly surprising when you consider that Gibbins comes out of the glib world of music videos (he made Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”).
At least one thing makes Fire with Fire palatable: the drop-dead gorgeous Virginia Madsen (Creator), whose angelic appearance is utterly beguiling. Aside from being a fine actress, she certainly provides a convincing argument for this whole love-at-first-sight business.
First published in the Herald, May 10, 1986
Gibbins was big in music videos; he worked with Wham! and Eurythmics, too. This is weird, but he died in 1993 during wildfires in Southern California; according to Wikipedia he was trying to rescue a cat from a burning house and sustained lethal burns. His other features were Eve of Destruction and A Case for Murder. The painting Madsen’s character is trying to re-create is Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite corker, Ophelia. This movie came during Craig Sheffer’s run as the New Thing, which included That Was Then … This Is Now, and Some Kind of Wonderful. I didn’t mention the nuns, but they are a formidable group: Kate Reid, Jean Smart, and Detour star Ann Savage, who could absolutely put the fear of God into anybody. I really think I’d give this another shot, laughable or not.