Wilder Napalm was a movie that was probably always destined for limited appeal and it’s too bad because it’s quite a ride. I’m grateful that a streaming service like Amazon Prime is allowing older, obscure movies like this to be exposed to the public.
Arliss Howard is great as one of two estranged brothers who have the power to start fires with their bodies. It’s weird someone thought, “Hey, that small balding young old guy from Full Metal Jacket would be great to anchor a rom-com/sci-fi/drama!!!” and thought that it might appeal to someone. But it somehow works. Howard brings a weird energy as Wilder as he’s lived a very sheltered and quiet life to the detriment of his wife Vida. They’re both happy but it’s clear that something is missing. They at least have a healthy sex life and when his brother Wallace comes into the picture, it’s not played as he’s physically superior so therefore he’s a threat. It’s more that Wallace is actually charming, outgoing, and extroverted in a way that it starts to appeal to Vida. It’s an interesting dynamic for the movie to play with as love triangles such as these usually deal with the sexual side of things when all this trouble starts simply because Debra Winger just wants to go outside now that she’s been released from house arrest. He’s clearly loving and caring, but there’s a darkness that’s he doesn’t want to get out.
As the movie progresses, him trying to keep his fire power in control forces him to get out of control. Not to mention his brother played by Dennis Quaid comes back into the picture as he’s part of the circus that has come into town. He’s supposed to be a clown that shoots fire. Quaid is fun to see chew scenery as Wallace. He’s probably extra but it’s just nice to see him actually be in a role that allows him to be intense and over the top. I feel like he’s supposed to be the antagonist, which he definitely is. However, he’s kind of not at times when he starts to get closer to Debra Winger. We see how she and Howard’s relationship affects her at a certain point and I understood why they were getting really close. Also, Wallace’s reappearance starts to finally force Wilder to get out of his shell he’s made for himself after dealing with a personal tragedy from years ago. Eventually, you understand why things between them are the way they are as it’s pretty dark stuff when it’s revealed. Winger is also fantastic as Vida, Wilder’s wife. She had a lot of layers other than the put upon wife as she’s forced to face her past as she’s on house arrest. Being forced to be home makes her restless and frustrated and she really gets that across. You start to feel what she feels and want her to not get in trouble again if this is making her act the way she does.
I honestly wasn’t sure what this was going to do for me because I saw it when I was in middle school and it was hard to make something out of it. In 2020, everything about it feels like a breath of fresh air as it’s got a very oddball tone that is also very charming. I like that it’s set somewhere in the south since so many movies are usually set in New York and Los Angeles. For some reason, there’s a southern feeling to it that was relaxing to me. That feeling of being home and being with friends and family started to set in. Someone remarked once in a random review that this was reminiscent of Raising Arizona and I can kind of see that. Especially when the fire shenanigans start to happen. Once the literal fire fights were going on, it was becoming a blast (no pun intended, but I’ll keep it). This took some time to get on my wavelength because again, I wasn’t sure what to make of it from the beginning. It never manages to set up what genre it is right away so I was thinking that it’s a fascinating mess in that regard. It feels less messy once you get used to its weirdness. But it was weird in an appealing way that I never turned away from it. Then at some point, I think I was loving it? It’s impressive how director Glenn Gordon Caron makes all this feel very cinematic considering he was a TV guy. There’s some truly gorgeous shots throughout that surprised me so thanks, cinematographer Jerry Hartlesben! That shot of Arliss Howard standing on top of a recently burnt house while looking at his kid self and that 360 shot of Dennis Quaid and Debra Winger while everything burns in the background were some true kino. Screenwriter Vince Gilligan even back then is a guy that was capable of having unique ideas and willing to embrace them in the weirdest ways.
But yeah, it’s very unlike a lot of movies you’ll see nowadays as it has an intriguing balance of drama and comedy. It manages to be a very entertaining romantic comedy-drama as it successfully balances all those genres. Even the romantic comedy aspect didn’t annoy me because it’s handled with such a delicately idiosyncratic touch that I got sucked into the triangle myself. It even gets to a point where you genuinely have no idea what’s going to happen and are curious to know what will happen next. Wilder Napalm is the kind of movie that will charm and delight with its weirdness if you’re open to it. It’s also a movie that has singing doo wop firefighters, who doesn’t like singing doo wop firefighters??!!!
I am giving Wilder Napalm a 4 out of 5 Hairpieces!