Backdraft (1991)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 24 March (11.00 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

At some point in the 2000s, Ron Howard became a darling of the awards industry. Beforehand, he’d directed a string of unpretentious, successful entertainments, the sort of films with one word titles that equally needed a single word to describe exactly what they were about e.g. Splash concerns MERMAIDS!, Cocoon = ALIENS!, Ransom = er, RANSOM! I’m not even being sniffy; they were perfectly fine, diverting efforts, a couple of hours where you could sink into your seat and enjoy what was happening on the screen – nothing wrong with that. It was only with the worthy and rather fine Apollo 13 that Howard starting tackling meatier subjects, and then he came up with A Beautiful Mind, which scooped four Academy Awards, including one for the director. Based on its entertainment value, I didn’t mind the film; as a biopic I loathed it, especially for the way it treated its central subject, the mathematician John Nash, transforming him into a romantic, tortured genius just for the sake of creating a sympathetic hero.

But that’s one for another time. Today’s entry is Backdraft, which is about fire (FIRE!), and indeed fire is the star of the film. Despite assembling a cast that would be the envy of any picture from the early 1990s, the strongest memories come from those scenes that show the inferno in all its forms. Beautifully shot and moving almost seductively across the screen, fire steals the show. At one point, Robert De Niro’s character tells us we have to see fire as something that’s living and that’s exactly what the film tries to do, even adding sound effects to suggest an angry god at work in the background, possibly one with the demanding intonation of Arthur Brown.

Elsewhere, Backdraft is a bit of a mess, somehow running over two hours long thanks to confused plotting and the attempt to wrong-foot viewers. There’s a point when watching it is a spotter’s reference guide to other movies (Top Gun and The Silence of the Lambs spring immediately to mind), and you could almost invent a drinking game around the number of clichés that mount up, starting with the opening scene in which a fireman is killed in an explosion and a charred helmet drops to the feet of his watching son.

One plot strand follows the relationship between fire fighter brothers Stephen (Kurt Russell) and Brian (William Baldwin). It’s their father who died and they’ve followed in his footsteps. The older Stephen has turned into a macho hero, working for the toughest fire fighting unit and being committed enough to the service to alienate his wife (Rebecca De Mornay) into separation. Brian has just entered the service and joins Stephen’s team, much to his chagrin. From the start, he’s belittled by his brother, made to stay by his side and wear protective gear whilst Stephen doesn’t even bother to don his mask. Ultimately, he leaves to join Donald ‘Shadow’ Rimgale (De Niro), who investigates the causes of fires breaking out and is currently looking into a series of similar deaths caused by ‘backdraft’ explosions.

That’s the second strand. Rimgale and Brian’s sleuthing leads them into the orbit of Alderman Swayzak (J.T. Walsh), a Chicago mayoral candidate, along with his glamorous assistant and Brian’s old flame, Jennifer (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The backdraft killings appear awful and planned carefully, victims opening a door to find themselves facing an unstoppable torrent of fire heading in their direction. Who’s responsible? Finding out lands the pair into the company of Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland), an insane, convicted arsonist who knows enough about fire to deliver an important clue.

Getting to this stage takes a long time, a long and unnecessary amount of time as Bartel points out the obvious to Brian – connect the victims and work out who benefits. Sutherland is one of many talents in the film that is wasted, forced to channel the spirit of Hannibal Lecter in terms of only giving up what he knows in exchange for details of Brian’s personal life. Similarly, Leigh has little to do apart from have a sex scene with Brian (on top of a fire engine, which of course sets off on a job halfway through their business!) and then deliver some important information to him at a key point. De Niro practically plays himself.

At least Kurt Russell is good value. He’s perfectly cast, effortless in fact as the hero fireman who puts his life on the line with every mission for no better reason than to experience the rush. Few did this kind of thing better, and playing it completely straight so that his character becomes almost fascistic in his dedication, not to mention blinkered to the feelings of his co-workers, led by Scott Glenn’s world weary veteran of the force. Baldwin, who’s kind of slipped off the radar following some major roles in the nineties, isn’t bad either, and there’s some nice interplay between the pair. They’re ideally cast even physically, Baldwin lanky and a little awkward besides Russell’s beefier classic leading man.

A shame that more wasn’t made of this and that some of the less important and jumbled plot contrivances didn’t have to be shoehorned in. There’s a very good ninety-minute movie somewhere in the mix, but amidst all the superfluousness it gets lost. Great fire effects though, and it was for these the film received several Oscar nominations.

Backdraft: **

5 Replies to “Backdraft (1991)”

  1. Ah, I remember this. Yes, the fire really was the star of the show, despite all the big names in the cast and I think that’s for the reasons you cite: too much superfluous plot.

    1. Thanks Colin. I picture the likes of De Niro and Sutherland just being in it for the cheque, to be honest. The weird thing about the film is that I remember so little of what happens and I don’t think that’s a good thing to take from it.

  2. I saw this when it came out – enjoyed it as a spectacle and an OK mystery but was bored stiff by the character stuff, despite a terrific supporting cast and Russell, as you say, is always good value though. I remember being disappointed that the music used int he terrific trailer was not to be found in the flick – turned out it was GLORY, scored by Howard’s most regular composer (though not on this occasion), James Horner – one suspects it was part of the original temp track:

    1. Interesting. As it happens I very nearly covered Glory for this site, but I think went for The Devil Rides Out instead out of sheer Hammer loyalty, but it will be on again and I’ll be there when it is. For me, the film was good when the focus was on spectacle, a bit of a snorer otherwise. Thanks, and I love the music on the trailer.

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