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Burn Notice – The Fall of Sam Axe: Good idea, bad idea

After watching 'The Fall of Sam Axe,' I'm just not sure that you should do movies about each of the show's main characters; they just don't work as well alone as they do together.

- Season -, Episode - - "The Fall of Sam Axe"

USA and the Burn Notice Powers That Be had us all salivating when they announced at last year’s Comic-Con that Sam Axe (played to perfection by cult hero Bruce Campbell) would be getting his own prequel TV-movie. Just a little less than a year later, Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe has hit the small screen, and I find myself feeling … satisfied, but a little underwhelmed.

The idea of a movie “event” for a TV show is a fairly uncommon one that can be effective if done well (see: 24: Redemption). And one can’t argue with the choice of subject matter: Bruce Campbell could make almost anything watchable, and the character of Sam Axe has plenty of unexplored backstory. Not to mention, plenty of quips (“We’re looking for a secret intelligence facility. They don’t put them on maps, that’s how you know they’re secret”). It’s admirable that TPTB would invest the time and effort into further developing the Burn Notice universe. In fact, you could probably do a movie for each of the show’s main characters.

After watching The Fall of Sam Axe, I’m just not sure that you should.

Don’t get me wrong, Campbell acts the heck out of the role of then-Commander Sam Axe, who’s dispatched to Colombia by the Navy to investigate rumors of a terrorist group and decide if military aid is needed to defeat them. There’s also a great supporting performance by RonReaco Lee — late of Matt Nix’s other series, The Good Guys; may that show rest in peace — as Ben Delaney, a doctor at a civilian clinic that’s in the line of fire. (If TPTB don’t find some way to get him on this upcoming season of Burn Notice, I will be very disappointed. He’d fit right in.) The entire opening sequence, which riffs on the often overdramatic way that military dramas often go, is hilarious. And there are plenty of Burn Notice hallmarks: voiceovers, snazzy transitions, the origin of the alias “Chuck Finley,” and stuff that blows up.

So why don’t I love this movie instead of just like it? I think it’s equal parts what is there, and what’s missing. There are some aspects of the movie that are pretty ordinary. Kiele Sanchez (as Amanda) does pretty much what she does on A&E’s The Glades: banter with and be the love interest for the hero. We’ve also seen Sam’s blustery, by-the-book boss and the characters who should be good guys but end up being apathetic (in this case, CIA agents) before. And no amount of wisecracking can make the obligatory scenes where Sam tries to teach the locals military tactics any more funny; the” lost in translation” kind of jokes have been done to death. There’s just a little too much here that feels like “been there, done that.”

The Fall of Sam Axe also reminds us of what makes Burn Notice really tick: it’s about the entire group, not just one particular character. Sam is great, but there’s something that just isn’t the same without Michael, Fiona, Jesse or Maddie there for him to play off of. We’ve had four seasons of this group working so well together that watching one without the others is almost like missing an arm. An appearance by Jeffrey Donovan is a nice touch, but not enough.

And while it’s nice to see how Sam left the Navy and ended up in Miami, I’m not convinced that there was enough story that we needed a two-hour movie. Burn Notice has done a great job parsing out Sam’s backstory throughout the series as is. The plot feels like it might have fit just as well in an episode of the show. Add those two things together, and while I think that we could do a Fiona movie or a Michael movie (or even a Fiona and Michael movie), maybe we’re better off just letting the show do what it already does so well.

That’s not to say that The Fall of Sam Axe is a complete disappointment. Far from it. It’s certainly a fun, funny way to spend two hours, and at least we learn a little more about Sam Axe than we knew before. I enjoyed watching it, certainly, but after waiting with bated breath for a year, I think I was expecting something bigger than a TV-movie that makes me long for the return of Burn Notice more than anything else.

Photo Credit: USA

29 Responses to “Burn Notice – The Fall of Sam Axe: Good idea, bad idea”

April 18, 2011 at 11:03 AM

I have to admit that I was relieved when Deb told me that you could review this last night. I couldn’t watch more than about a hour of this yesterday, and I was dreading watching the rest of it.

I LOVE the show though. Absolutely adore it. But you’re right– it’s the chemistry and interactions that make the show work.

I just have to ask though: Was there any yogurt in the second hour?

April 18, 2011 at 11:35 AM

Not that I noticed.

You’re right, though. The scene between Sam and Michael at the bowling alley had a different kind of pop to it than the rest of the movie. None of Sam’s interactions with any other character came close to that, although RonReaco Lee certainly was awesome (obviously he learned from interacting with Bradley Whitford on The Good Guys). I can’t wait for season five to get here.

April 18, 2011 at 11:09 AM

Sticking with the “sort of liked it, sort of didn’t” argument of the top post, I have to say I sort of agree and sort of don’t. The movie had some great bits and the script, while saggy at times, was often sharp and clever. (My favorite line: “We’re making a bomb. We do the opposite of what it says on the warning label.”)And as Brittany says, Bruce Campbell is always fun to watch. It was good to see him back in fighting trim (catch that “ten pounds I need to lose” throw-away?), and one thing this movie confirmed (for me, anyway) is that he has to be the first choice for lead if/when Universal ever takes another stab at relaunching “The Rockford Files.” Campbell is the rightful heir to James Garner’s patented brand of rueful, wry, put-upon anti-heroic heroics.

All that being said, I agree with Brittany that the movie felt padded and over-long. It would have been better at 90 minutes. The extra tautness, I think, would have allayed her sense that the problem was the absence of Michael, Fiona, et al. It was the presence of too much air time to fill, not the absence of the other “Burn Notice” cast members, that made the movie not quite as successful as it might have been.

My verdict: a fun flick, well worth watching. By all means do a Michael and Fiona follow-up, but make it 90 minutes instead of 120.

April 18, 2011 at 11:42 AM

Maybe, maybe not. I think you sort of hit the nail on the head. It would be a Michael *and* Fiona movie. There’s enough backstory for each to probably do a separate movie before we even go into their shared history – but both my and your brains leap to putting them in the same movie.

And as you said, it was just a bit too long. I do think cutting about a half hour out of it would have tightened the script up considerably, and that would’ve helped a great deal. But I think I still would have missed the other characters (perhaps just a bit less). Not that this movie is bad, just that the show is that good.

April 18, 2011 at 11:57 AM

Not sure where they got there military advisor, but they really did not have much right concerning the military part of the show…wait a minute, this was about the mi,kraft part of his life. That was screwed up big time. Ruined the show.

April 18, 2011 at 12:14 PM

I thought that the movie got stronger as it went along and by the end, I really did feel some chemistry between Sam and the other cast members, which was sorely lacking at the beginning of the flick.

It was mostly well-done and the lines were great and by the end I was satisfied with spending my time watching the movie. I’m a huge fan of BN and the movie didn’t come close, but still fun.

April 18, 2011 at 2:06 PM

Absolutely. Everyone seems to be saying that we at least had fun, and I certainly did. I think, at least in my case, what didn’t work wasn’t so much a slam on the movie as it was a reflection of how well things work on Burn Notice week after week.

April 18, 2011 at 12:17 PM

I was disappointed in the mistakes and lack of detail about military affairs. Sam is a Lt. Cdr. but he is wearing full Cdr. shoulder boards (the right one incorrectly). The Admiral (and his aide) in the Board of inquiry had no rank insignia and I am unsure what rank/rate or even service the court reporter was. Sam is wearing a Surface Warfare insignia rather than his SEAL pin. No Naval officer is going to call himself a “soldier” repeatedly.

April 18, 2011 at 12:36 PM

It started badly and got progressively worse. We like Michael Westin and Sam Axe because they may be occasionally funny, but they are also competent.

Axe’s cover in Tropical White Short (but we describes as “Dress Whites” is flat out wrong. The gold fouled anchors on the front doens’t have black backing. White shows out from under the black band. If he’s a commander, where are the scrambled eggs on his visor? He salutes indoors, not Navy. He wears surface line “water wings” rather than a SEAL “trident.” His shoulder boards are somehow wrapped around white epaulets (where on where did they get that uniform?) And he wears a China service ribbon. Yeah, right they haven’t been issued since Mao took over.

The admiral has equally as many uniform errors.

It was dreadful, pathetic, embarrassing. I had to turn off the TV after 30 minutes.

“Burn Notice” gives you the feeling the characters know their business and that there is sophistocated evil afoot. You get the feeling that if you watch you might learn something.

This gave the feeling of farce with incompetence everywhere and unsophistocation everywhere. Learn something? How to turn the TV off.

April 22, 2011 at 4:05 PM

I dunno Kapok, I learned never to screw an Admirals wife or underestimate filthy goat-herders.

April 18, 2011 at 1:05 PM

I enjoyed the heck out of it. It wasn’t supposed to be an Emmy nominee. It was supposed to be fun. And it was.

April 18, 2011 at 2:05 PM

It was fun. And no one expected it to be an Emmy nominee. It wasn’t a bad flick. But we’ve seen from the past four seasons that the BN creative team (which is Emmy-nominated, if we’re mentioning those) can do fun *and* give us so much more than that. I think that’s where the letdown comes in.

April 18, 2011 at 2:35 PM

Of COURSE you should not do movies about lead characters on TV shows. But this was Brilliant! After all, it was Bruce Campbell being Sam Axe and not as a side-kick. PERFECT.

April 18, 2011 at 2:46 PM

“…a TV-movie that makes me long for the return of Burn Notice more than anything else.”

Mission accomplished. This movie was meant to hold people drive more interest into the show. What did USA and Burn Notice accomplish yesterday? They had a Burn Notice Marathon that a lot of people watched leading up to a mini-Burn Notice movie. They made yesterday a sort of holiday to the faithful Burn Notice fan and probably even snagged a few new ones along the way. I always get excited for the new season of Burn Notice, but seeing that movie and Sam Axe arriving in Miami at the end made me more excited than ever for the new season.

April 18, 2011 at 4:56 PM

I’d certainly think so! I think I was hoping for more of something that was awesome in its own right, and not just leading into the new season, but if nothing else it got me stoked for season five and it seems several other people as well.

April 18, 2011 at 3:11 PM

Because no one else has mentioned it, nice Animaniacs reference in the title.

April 18, 2011 at 3:14 PM

. . . . .

Completely missed that Katie!

*rolls on the floor laughing*

April 18, 2011 at 4:24 PM

Great memory, Katie! I just bumped into Michael while I, too, was rolling on the floor laughing.

April 18, 2011 at 4:54 PM

I was wondering if anyone was going to notice that! (My favorite is still the one about ordering the burrito “that makes you go.”)

April 18, 2011 at 5:02 PM

Since I just started the CartoonClack column, I would have been ashamed if I didn’t catch that. ;) And I was always a fan of the wheel of morality.

April 18, 2011 at 5:04 PM

Did you notice the hidden messages in the opening credits of Pinky & The Brain? I insisted they were there from my childhood but everyone thought I was nuts until last year when I DVR’ed a rerun and paused it. XD

April 19, 2011 at 10:24 AM

I thought it was great. I seriously think you people should quit whining abouta few inconsistincies in his uniform! I mean, who cares, its a TV movie! I thought it was a great film, it was fun, funny, and I loved the appearance by Jeffrey Donovan. I also loved seeing how Chuck Finely was born.

So I’d give it an 8/10 and I can’t wait ’till the next Burn Notice Season! :)

April 19, 2011 at 2:07 PM

Catherine, I don’t think it’s “whining” at all. It’s not too much to ask for a production to take the time to get its details correct. In particular, when the subject involves the military, such errors can be considered offensive.

April 19, 2011 at 4:25 PM

True, but I don’t see why anyone should be offended. I was earbud this special with my brothers (one in the Navy and one in the Marines) and they didn’t really care. I dont see why anyone should take offense to it…

April 19, 2011 at 4:29 PM

It’s a matter of personal opinion, so I don’t think we should discount anyone else’s feelings based on your experience. I’m sure if you talked to those people, they’d have explanations why they’re bothered by it.

April 19, 2011 at 4:28 PM

*watching* lol I dunno how earbud got there… Stupid auto correct on my phone..

April 23, 2011 at 8:31 AM

This was not supposed to be a box office smash, it was not supposed to be an episode of Burn Notice. i think many people came into this movie knowing what they wanted to see, and immediately cut it off when it wasn’t. This one was for the fans and i must say that i had a good giggle and at the chuck finley quick i was fist pumping with joy.

April 23, 2011 at 2:00 PM

If you’re suggesting that the people who didn’t like the movie aren’t fans, I think you’re being a little harsh. Of course it wasn’t going to be “a box office smash” because it wasn’t a theatrical motion picture. Certainly no one had that expectation.

I think some of us wanted more than “a good giggle” and the explanation of a quip – we wanted something with a little more to it. The Burn Notice creative team has proven they can turn out something that’s both fun and has a depth to it; the movie was fun, but that was really it.

April 23, 2011 at 11:39 PM

Not entirely that only fans can enjoy this movie, but one core fundamental of BNs ‘watchability’ and quality is it’s strong characterisation; and that’s what this movie was about, building the characterisation of Sam Axe. If you didn’t know him from the show, many subtleties and traits would have gone over your head. For example, when he was asking for the beer at the hearing, some may have seen this as corny and not funny, when really it was classic Sam Axe.
Imagine if you substituted the protagonist in this movie (namely Sam Axe); it would be a rather cliche’ light action drama, not bad by any standards, but really you wouldn’t go out of your way to watch it. Just the fact that we see some development and character of Sam Axe makes this watchable.

Btw i have ‘hey, snow white’ playing on repeat <3

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