The Brief but Glorious Period of Howie Long: Action Hero

Art by Travis Alexander Wilker

Following the 1993 NFL season, Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long retired from football. After 8 pro-bowl selections and a super bowl, it was time to hang up the pads. Before enjoying another successful career as an NFL analyst on television, he had a brief stint in Hollywood and the wonderful world of action filmmaking. There were just two movies he was in, Broken Arrow and Firestorm – supporting in Broken Arrow and the lead in Firestorm – but dammit he was actually pretty good at it.  Not only did he have the looks for it, listed at 6’5” and 260 pounds, he was also simply able to do stunts and fight choreography convincingly enough. Combine that with his bright smile and burgeoning charisma in front of the camera, and there was just real potential for him to make an honest living out of it. He was always going to return to football, but I can’t help but wish we got a few more action films out of him beforehand, because the small sample we have is strong. 

The nineties were such a beautiful time for action films. The combination of every studio trying to recreate the Die Hard formula and the influx of international filmmakers into Hollywood like John Woo and Wolfgang Petersen brought the filmmaking craft and practical effects/stuntworks to dizzying new heights. Broken Arrow was just Woo’s second film he made in America, after making one of the greatest action films in Hard Target. Graham Yost wrote the screenplay (more on him later). 

John Travolta delivers every line like he’s playing a slave driver. Samantha Mathis delivers every line like she’s having a nervous breakdown. Christian Slater is such a weird fucking choice for an action hero. Delroy Lindo is crushing every line. It’s awesome. It’s a sensational film in Woo’s hands. And even in a supporting role, Long stands out as Kelly, the main henchman. A great main henchman can make or break an action film and Long is more than able to make his scenes count. He was actually charismatic and just looked like such a meathead already that you just bought him. He belonged. He sells some goofy lines like “Son of a bitch! Shockwave took down the damn chopper!” and “You the man, Deak!” with such giddy excitement and his winning smile. It’s such a damn fun movie, and he’s a significant enough reason why. 

It was now time for him to lead a film rather than be the henchman. That film would be Firestorm, directed by prolific Australian cinematographer Dean Semler. Graham Yost did uncredited work on the script. There’s a whole other piece to be written about how Yost was the writer behind several iconic 90s action films (Speed, Broken Arrow and Hard Rain) before making one of the best shows ever in Justified.

Firestorm has just about everything I like in a movie. A stupid-as-hell premise. William Forsythe is the villain and is just chewing it up at every chance.. Scott Glenn. Hotshot firemen being capable of taking on escaped convicts. The villain dies a ridiculously painful death. There’s one fight scene between Jesse and a German former wrestler that is just great. First off they fight with axes. The wrestler keeps doing all these wrestling moves on Jesse and then after he tosses Jesse against a shelf that breaks, he lets out the awesome line of “Now the final round….still undefeated….the man you love to hate….THE EXECUTIONER!” That’s what I like in a film. Long then hits him with a ridiculously framed uppercut. It’s awesome.

And here’s the damn thing, Long is a lot of fun as the action hero. You just buy him as capable of the ridiculous shit he does in this film. He’s so massive and meathead looking that you just buy he’s the best damn hotshot fireman there is. He’s able to do a good amount of the stunts and fight choreography. And he’s got the charm to spare, he hits his spots, flashes that smile and delivers the one-liners. He simply knows what he’s doing. You can’t ask for much more. It’s a damn fun movie, and he leads it ably.  

So what went wrong? Why was the Howie Long era of action movies over just when it began? Well it didn’t help that the film was a bust at the box office. Against a modest $19 million budget the film would only make just over $8 million at the box office. It was a dud. And in this business, rather than three, it’s one strike and you’re out. Just a short stint for Long. Back to football he went, and we’re left to wonder what other fun action movies he could have led. 

So what’s the takeaway from all this? No clue. They should just make more action movies starring former NFL players (Stone Cold) for starters. Films like Stone Cold, Broken Arrow, Black Dog, Hard Target and other dumb fun action movies from the 90s are now reappraised and enjoyed in a way they weren’t all those years ago. I think a big part of it is that it’s the last full decade before CGI took over filmmaking the way it has. Back then they still actually blew shit up for explosions. You couldn’t fake what a stuntman was capable of. Actors would actually fight each other in fight scenes. All these things were standard back then, and you could count on dumb action movies to still contain them. It was just a time that’s all the more beautiful in retrospect. And for a moment, Howie Long of all people was in these films and was actually pretty good at it.

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