Ron Howard’s Backdraft turned out to be the last movie I watched in 2013. I had never seen it before. It also happened to be one of the cheesiest movies I watched in 2013. In my Air Force One review, I criticized that film for being “too cinematic” with clichés that happen for no other reason than because we expect them to. Backdraft, as entertaining as it is – and it is entertaining – suffers from this in spades.
Meet the McCaffrey brothers: Stephen the older one (Kurt Russell) and Brian the younger one (William Baldwin). As a child, Brian saw their firefighter dad die while fighting a large blaze and after a series of odd jobs, he’s decided to return to firefighting. He’s assigned to Stephen’s station: Engine 17 in Chicago. Stephen is reckless and frequently disregards his own safety, much to the chagrin of fellow firefighter John Adcox (Scott Glenn), who watched over the McCaffreys after their father died. At the same time, Alderman Martin Swayzak (the late J.T. Walsh) is running for mayor but is facing some heat [rimshot] for his budget cuts, which have caused several firehouses to be decommissioned; this puts our heroes in ever-greater danger.
This movie is exciting. The pre-CGI fire scenes are excellent. The film was actually nominated for Best Visual Effects (and justifiably lost to T2), and the pyro guys certainly deserved all the recognition they received. ILM did a handful of miniature shots but with one exception, I couldn’t tell what was what. Kurt Russell is always fun to watch and that all-American swagger and smirk are quite present here. William Baldwin is… fine. I suppose anyone could’ve played this role, but Baldwin has just the right amount of earnestness and naiveté. (Though I’m not sure if it’s sincere or just bad acting!) J.T. Walsh is excellent as always and I know what you’re thinking: a corrupt politician? In Chicago? Walsh was one of the quintessential “Hey, it’s that guy!” actors and I miss him. He passed away in 1998. Donald Sutherland has a small role as an arsonist who helps Brian, à la Hannibal Lecter – more on him a bit.
As usual, I’ll leave it to the experts. Here’s a thoughtful and accurate take on Howard by Grantland’s Tom Carson: “Spielberg's real genius is that he has made his neuroses (Daddy, where art thou?) and paradoxically practical-minded version of transcendence part of the average moviegoer's comfort zone, obviously not the case with Howard. Like Spielberg, Howard has directed movies in all sorts of genres. But unlike Spielberg, he doesn't enrich – let alone renew – them with a detectable perspective of his own. The ability to rip the mass audience a new comfort zone is one definition of mainstream greatness, from Walt Disney and Frank Capra to [Spielberg] himself. Howard, by contrast, just abides by existing formulas and does a better carpentry job than most. A poet he isn't, although he did well enough by whimsy – poetry's crowd-pleasing kid brother – in Splash.”
But in the case of Backdraft, everything that I thought would happen ended up happening. And the script – by former firefighter Gregory Widen, who also wrote Highlander – piles on cliché after cliché. We have the sibling rivalry, which apparently never ended. We have the new guy’s even cockier best friend (played by Jason Gedrick) – he’s the character in World War II movies who would die after showing the guys a picture of his sweetheart back home. In this movie, he ends up horribly disfigured. In the war movies, the character was usually named something like Kowalsky. In this movie, it’s Krizminski! We have not one, but two lost loves. Stephen frequently visits his estranged wife Helen (Rebecca De Mornay) and their son, while Brian’s ex-girlfriend Jennifer (a bored-looking Jennifer Jason Leigh) conveniently works in the Alderman’s office. Brian and Jennifer make love on top of a fire truck, which is something I’d expect to see in a Michael bay movie.
it’s mainly scientific: collection and analysis of data, development and testing of a hypothesis, and finally a conclusion. Gut feelings and love? Save it for the dating scene. (And many firefighters have pointed out that there isn’t enough smoke in this movie, but too much smoke would obscure the actors.)
This movie also features one of my pet peeves: making one of the heroes the villain. It’s a trope as old as the hills and maybe we’ve just seen it too many times… but the entire time I kept thinking, “Please don’t let the arsonist be one of the firefighters!” Adcox feels justified in his actions, and he dies for his sins. In cases like this, you can usually do one of three things for the audience: a.) save the reveal for the end which happens here, b.) show us the villain from the start (like the traitorous Secret Service agent in Air Force One), or c.) simply have it be a random person. But, in terms of storytelling, how satisfying would it be for the arsonist to be just one random nut that we never saw before, played by a glorified extra? But contrast this (and Air Force One) with Executive Decision: all the heroes remain heroes, and they even manage to get another villain – the bomb-maker – into the film in the last 20 minutes! (Hey, Kurt Russell and J.T. Walsh were in that movie, too!)
this overused thing. The score is anything but subtle, but I’ll take it over the droning background noise that passes for movie scoring today. The other technical stuff is all first-rate. After shooting The Abyss for James Cameron, this movie was no doubt a cakewalk for cinematographer Mikael Salomon. And it’s nice to see Chicago playing itself. No Toronto or Bulgaria in this movie!
In a world where there aren’t enough movies about firefighters, this one will have to do… at least until someone else directs a better (and better-written) one. It’s entertaining – your typical Hollywood 90s-era blockbuster, pre-CGI, pre-shaky-cam. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it looks and sounds like every other wheel out there.
“What about fire?”
“Yes. It consumes fuel to produce energy… it grows… it creates offspring… by your definition, is it alive?”
“Fire is a chemical reaction. You could make the same argument for growing crystals… but obviously, we don't consider them alive.”
(This is dialogue from a Star Trek: TNG episode – they cover the subject better than this movie!)