Starring: Kurt Russell, Robert De Niro, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Donald Sutherland
Directed by: Ron Howard
Film length: 2hr 17min
Theatrical Release: 1991
Blu-ray release: 2011
I was in my early teens the last time I watched Backdraft prior to this Blu-ray viewing. I remember my mother switching it off during the scene when William Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh started making out on top of a fire truck. It wasn’t to protect my innocence; she was very liberal about sex in movies and I had already watched Mischief with both of my parents years earlier. (There will always be a special place in my memories for you, 80’s Kelly Preston.) Mom did make a declaration before shutting it off though: that the movie was stupid… or crap… I may be paraphrasing. Point is, she thought it sucked. I was floored since the hype for this film and rave reviews it got were everywhere at the time. I think my sister and I finished watching it the next morning before the VHS tape we rented had to be returned, but I couldn’t recall if I enjoyed it. Well, considering this disc was cheap as chips and loaded with extras, I decided it was time for a re-watch to see if Mom was right.
The film (2/5)
“You go. We go.”
Backdraft takes place in Chicago and mostly follows two firefighter brothers who don’t get along. Lt. Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey (Kurt Russell) is the experienced veteran whose reckless methods are frowned upon by some, but who has a knack for getting the job done. Younger brother Brian (William Baldwin) had resisted joining the department after a traumatic childhood event made him a witness to their firefighter father’s death while on the job. After a few failed attempts at a career outside of firefighting, Brian finally answers the call and joins the department.
While Bull is putting Brian through the paces to see if he REALLY wants to be a firefighter, a rash of oxygen induced fires called “backdrafts” have broken out in the city. Fire investigator, Captain Donald “Shadow” Rimgale (De Niro) is convinced they are the work of an arsonist, but he is finding it difficult to prove. The backdrafts are contained with the focus on a single victim and the usual MO of arsonists is to inflict as much damage as they possibly can.
In an attempt to gain perspective, Rimgale solicits the help of imprisoned arsonist Ronald Bartel (Sutherland) who years prior set similar fires. The case seems to be headed nowhere as the fires continue to ramp up, and even claim one of the department’s own as a victim. A breakthrough is reached when Bartel points out the materials used to create the backdrafts are easily accessible to anyone in the fire department. This narrows down the field of suspects, but it now means there is a strong possibility that someone in the department is the arsonist!
Let’s just get this out of the way right now. Mom, you were right: Backdraft’s story sucks. The love/hate relationship built on tension between the brothers, the love story between Baldwin and Leigh, De Niro’s “investigator with a hunch he can’t prove” scenario, and the political real estate deal thingy that is supposed to tie it all together…. blah. They all hit familiar notes you’ve heard too many times, and the result is a series of easily predictable movie clichés glued together.
Baldwin’s character is the closest thing to a lead and he is the one we’re supposed to experience the story through. Problem is he’s a generic slice of tasteless white bread that is too willing to go wherever and do whatever is convenient for the plot. A large part of the film’s beginning centers around him trying to prove himself as a firefighter, but at no point does he display any desire to be one. The opening scene of the film is him aiming to be assigned to a firehouse with the least amount of action so he won’t have to do much firefighting. So why do I care if he makes it or not?
Later, he gets it on with Jennifer Jason Leigh on top of a fire truck. At no point prior in the film does it seem like either is interested in each other, but they must screw because what is a movie without sex? The idea being it would make for a good scene (or a funny gag) where the good-looking couple is in mid-bang when the fire truck they have chosen to pinch hit for a mattress eventually gets sent out on a call. The scene cuts between shots of love-making and Kurt Russell on the job elsewhere banging on doors with an axe and rubbing at walls while describing the fire as “hot and smokey”. Gee wiz, Mom, why did you stop the movie there?
Eventually we need to move the arsonist part of the story along, so guess who no longer wishes to be a firefighter and is conveniently placed in the forensics department to work under De Niro? Laaaame.
I don’t wish to pick on Baldwin (the dude was just there to do the job that was asked from him), but I don’t understand why they felt they needed him to carry the entire film. The De Niro and Sutherland scene would be fine without him. The problem really lies with the script that was only designed to thread together some state of the art special effects, and at the very least I guess it does do that. I just wish they used a sewing kit instead of duct tape to keep it all together.
What stood out to me/Memorable moments
These firefighters be dumb
They are reckless! Forget Russell’s clichéd “I don’t wear an oxygen mask” character, the rest are running into blazes they have no business being in. Firefighters would never put lives at risk for the sake of a building. Yeah, sometimes there are people trapped in buildings and they need to go into them, but that isn’t always the case in this film. At one point they are on the roof of a completely engulfed building on the verge of collapse, yet no one is trapped inside. What the frack are they doing up there? It makes no sense.
The special effects, of course are amazing
The only reason to watch and own this film are the special effects. This film was made in the day when effects were practical and they are truly a feat you need to see. Something like this will never be made this way again as long as computers are a part of film making.
Firefighters will mess up your car if you park in front of a fire hydrant
Don’t do it.
The back cover boasts this as a “picture perfect” edition. I have no idea if that is the case, but this is one good-looking film for sure. The amount of film grain keeps it just a step below Demolition Man, but still it is way better than a film this old should look.
An excellent sounding Blu-ray too. Dialogue was nice and clear even during the heavy action scenes. There was a hard rumble when things went boom and the sound of the backdraft swirled around my head. I’m starting to really dig these DTS HD lossless tracks. Oh, and the Hans Zimmer score delivers big time. I just wish it was attached to a better film.
Special Features (1/5)
Everything here is regurgitated from the 2006 special edition DVD. That means it is all in SD, folks! The 15 minute featurette on the special effects is a must watch though. I found how the fire scenes were planned out and how close the stunt men got to the flames fascinating. This is film-making that will never be done this way again. The other material is about the cast and script, and I could live without it. Give me a full on 1 – 2 hr HD feature about the special effects and I would eat it up.
Ron Howard has always been hit or miss with me. Backdraft directly followed two of my personal favorites of his, Willow and Parenthood. Unfortunately the care put into the stories for those films didn’t carry over into this one. Special effects should be there as an enhancement to the story only, and Backdraft instead is a show piece for them. It’s okay when a script takes liberties for the sake of show, but dip into that well too many times and you risk insulting the viewer’s intelligence.