Fire on the Amazon: Sandra Bullock’s Rumble in the Jungle

Everyone has to start somewhere. Even Dame Helen Mirren was featured in the controversial Caligula somewhat early in her illustrious career. If an aspiring thespian has stars in his or her eyes, sometimes it’s necessary to start at the bottom. There are plenty of actors and actresses who toil in the movie-making business for years before becoming a household name, and once in a while it’s a fun endeavor to dig through the archives to discover a film that highlights a player before that person actually became famous. Therefore, occasionally I’m going to delve into the past of Hollywood’s elite to take a look at a movie that boasts an A-lister before he or she was really a star. For the inaugural installment, I’m going to go with the recently re-released Fire On The Amazon, featuring the beloved Sandra Bullock.

OK, so Bullock is America’s sweetheart. However, long before she won an Oscar for The Blind Side and gained the nation’s sympathy for being cheated on by her then husband, Jesse James, Bullock made the tough decision as a young woman to star in executive producer Roger Corman’s Fire on the Amazon in 1990. That’s right, the film’s initial release is listed as 1993, but it was actually shot in ’90, meaning that production took place a few years before Bullock appeared in her breakout role in Speed, or even in Demolition Man with Sylvester Stallone, therefore making it one of her first feature films. I say that the decision was undoubtedly a tough one because, well… the movie is atrocious… that’s really the only way I can put it. In addition to Bullock making the choice as an aspiring actress to play a part in a film—about the destruction of the South American rain forest, by the way—that she had to know was less than stellar, the script also called for the girl-next-door type to do a delicate “love scene,” which had to make her uncomfortable. Bullock has made it clearly known that she tries to avoid these types of scenes. However, this was before Miss Congeniality had any kind of clout, so Bullock ultimately did what had to be done to put food on the table.

The story itself focuses on the struggle between loggers, ranchers, and the indigenous people of Bolivia over control of the land. The leader of a native protest group bent on protecting the rain forest who advocates passive resistance is assassinated at the beginning of the film, and the rest of the production bogs down into a nonsensical murder mystery. Bullock is a member of a preservation society that supported the late leader. She co-stars alongside Craig Sheffer, playing a magazine writer assigned to get a story who gloms on to Bullock and a lead regarding the identity of the killer. Together, the pair investigates this mystery to the annoyance of everyone around them, including the audience. Sheffer—who at one time was actually enjoyable in a handful of his early films such as the ‘80s teen classic Some Kind Of Wonderful, the horror staple Nightbreed from writer/director Clive Barker, and even the Academy Award-winning (for cinematography) A River Runs Through It, but not much since—completely sleepwalks through his performance in this turkey, and it’s additionally perplexing how his character could ever land a journalism job with such a monosyllabic demeanor. Anyway, Sheffer and Bullock trudge through the rough Bolivian terrain searching for answers, but every plot point only serves to raise more questions for the home viewer.

Apparently, there were plenty of people who had a motive to kill this conservationist leader, which obviously stems from greed and while this is never definitively or clearly laid out by the screenwriters, I suppose I could thank the producers for not insulting the intelligence of the viewers, although I doubt that was the plan. Even a simple, trite explanation would have been nice. Regardless, as Sheffer’s meddling gets him arrested and thrown into a cell with a local who’s a suspect in the killing, he has the audacity to ask for his phone call. Hopefully, other journalists traveling internationally understand that other countries don’t fall under the jurisdiction of American law. I only bring this up because it’s just the tip of the iceberg for Sheffer’s character, but I won’t bore everyone with the rest of his idiocy. The character isn’t qualified to be a drum tech for a ‘90s grunge band (though, he has the look down) let alone a journalist, is what I’m getting at. Anyway, after Sheffer is released, the man accused of being the assassin turns up dead in his cell from an apparent suicide. This raises Sheffer’s eyebrows due to the mistreatment he himself suffered at the hands of the police. He and Bullock then decide to visit the suspect’s tribe to get more answers. Along the way, a mysterious man follows the snooping pair and tries to kill them, shooting at their canoe and tipping it over. I have some advice for this would-be exterminator: Dead bodies tend to float… I’ll leave it at that. Furthermore, while it’s eventually revealed who this inept assassin is, his story is never made known, not that it would matter. Sheffer and Bullock go on to deal with the leader (Juan Fernandez, whose character’s motives are totally befuddling) of the slain suspect’s tribe, who after bringing the body home discovers that the cause of death was not suicide, but murder. The cover up leads everyone to believe that the police are up to something. Of course, this information shouldn’t ruin anything for anyone since the culprits are actually revealed very early in the film due to an incredibly poor attempt at foreshadowing. It’s so bad and obvious that its utterance leads to a total lack of suspense throughout the rest of the feature’s running time (which is thankfully, a scant eighty minutes… a real epic for tackling environmental holocaust) until it ambles to its resigned conclusion.

Moving on, all of this “intrigue” brings Sheffer and Bullock to their aforementioned love scene. Now, while the tryst is certainly exploitative (after all, let’s be honest, the whole reason Anchor Bay is re-releasing this unrated head scratcher in the first place, with a whole extra thirty seconds, is to capitalize on Bullock’s bold choice), it’s shockingly not as severe as it could have been, meaning I could possibly see it happening. Despite a complete lack of chemistry between the two characters, they attend the funeral ceremony of the murdered, now-innocent suspect where they ingest some sort of hallucinogenic together. From there, it’s time for “magic,” but here’s the problem: The scene is really no big deal. Even the renowned Mr. Skin was disappointed, quipping, “It hurts Mr. Skin, Sandy, more than it hurts you.” It’s even widely known that Bullock utilized strategically placed duct tape as a fail-safe to ensure nothing would be shown that she didn’t want to be. There is one camera shot that could be considered a bit risqué, but aside from that, it’s pretty tame stuff by today’s standards, although one must give Bullock her due respect for doing what “needed to be done.”

Well, that’s about it. I’ve already rambled on much too long. The only other antics I’ll touch on is that I thoroughly enjoyed the ‘90s style of fashion the two leads displayed in the jungles of South America. Bullock’s choice to tuck her white dress shirt into her jeans was exquisite, and Sheffer’s oversized button-down shirts (largely left unbuttoned) are a real treat, complete with a ludicrous ponytail (even the Bolivian authorities voice their disdain for it). The closing titles pontificating on the elimination of the rain forest in an attempt to make up for the all the previous murder mystery whodunit silliness is also a nice touch. In closing, I’ll give Fire on the Amazon one and half stars out of five, since rating a film where Sandra Bullock bared her “soul” any less would just be rude and in poor taste. However, as an exercise in looking into where the actress was then, it was at least… interesting. Thankfully, she moved on to “better?” fare.