Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Guest Review: Backdraft (1991)

By ScottDS

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.
The competition between the two brothers is fierce and Brian eventually leaves. He gets a job working for arson investigator Donald “Shadow” Rimgale (Robert De Niro, whose moniker proves you can’t have a movie about a group of blue-collar guys without nicknames). The fires all have one thing in common: the backdraft – a fire resulting from the sudden re-introduction of oxygen into a previously oxygen-free environment. We eventually learn that Alderman Swayzak is benefiting financially from the shuddered fire stations – they are to be turned into community centers and his construction company cronies will get big contracts. Sadly, we also learn that Adcox is the arsonist, getting his revenge on the financial hacks who suggested the idea via a phony manpower study. Both Stephen and Adcox die in a climactic chemical plant fire. Brian, despite his previous doubts, continues as a firefighter.

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.
Ron Howard… his filmography is quite varied to say the least. I’ve heard good things about Rush but, as far as the last decade goes, The Dilemna looked horrible, Frost/Nixon was good but ultimately forgettable, and the two Robert Langdon movies were just bland. I enjoy Apollo 13 quite a bit, though I don’t think A Beautiful Mind was necessarily worthy of Best Picture. (If you want a better Ron Howard/Russell Crowe movie, check out the overlooked Cinderella Man.) As it stands, he has yet to make his Schindler’s List and I’m not entirely sure he has it in him. Not every director does. Many of the criticisms against Howard all have the same keywords in common: “hack,” “safe,” “sterile,” “commercial-friendly,” etc. When Spielberg goes dark and edgy, we’re “witnessing the maturation of an artist.” When Howard does it, it’s “Opie is in over his head!” He just hasn’t cranked it up to 11 yet. Maybe Rush will change my opinion. (But the man helped bring Arrested Development into the world so he ultimately gets a pass!)

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.
And speaking of Michael Bay, my first reaction after the movie ended was, “Wow, it was like a Michael Bay movie, but pre-Bay!” Armageddon and Pearl Harbor specifically came to mind. All three movies feature rivalries, cheesy romantic interludes, and a group of guys going into battle with a strange and relentless force. Both De Niro and Sutherland’s characters anthropomorphize fire. At one point, Sutherland asks, “Did the fire look at you?” And De Niro insists fire is a living thing that eats and breathes and hates. The only way to fight a fire is to love it a little bit. Um… okay then. Ask any firefighter and they’ll tell you 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!)
A few more Bay touches are included… there’s a cheesy training montage, complete with inspirational ballad (Bruce Hornsby’s “The Show Goes On”) and slow-motion shots of Brian hosing himself off, his hair waving to and fro. A filmmaker like Ron Howard shouldn’t be using such clichés; he should be creating new clichés for other filmmakers to use! And the score by Hans Zimmer… wow. I think every cue in this movie has been used in a trailer at some point. And this was early Zimmer, before he became the creator of 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!)


Tennessee Jed said...

Nice review, Scott. I always felt that Howard's movies,particularly the earlier ones have been enjoyable despite being predictable. I suppose talking about storytelling always gets back to discussion of there being only so many stories to tell, and how hard it is to do something truly original. But, they tend directed well, so usually I can forgive. Hell, everybody would agree Hoosiers (not to mention the less well known Mighty Macs) is the cheesiest movie ever, but one would have to have no pulse not to be able to enjoy it. No, my main problem with Howard is that he has become to visible with his politics. See, I don't mind people having different political views, but dislike it when people use the public forum their celebrity has given them to get in your face about it. Back in the days of Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, etc., Hollywood understood the virtues of keeping one's politics to themselves.

AndrewPrice said...

Nice review, Scott! Thanks.

I'm of three minds when it comes to Howard. First, I used to like his films a lot. They struck me as very well mad and usually patriotic. Secondly, after a while I started to question whether they were really all that well made. The older ones didn't hold up all that well and the newer ones felt very corporate and weak to me. Then he went political and that's hurt his reputation further in my book.

I see him as a man who had a legacy that is fading fast.

Mike said...

Ron Howard needs to star and direct a movie about a musician in The Netherlands who takes a "temporary" job teaching music to kids but winds up staying with it until he retires. They could call it "Mr Opie's Holland".

Anonymous said...

Mike -

My reaction to that title.


Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Corporate's a good way of putting it. Spielberg's later movies feel that way, too, but not to the same extent. I guess it's a matter of "going corporate" yet retaining enough vision and creative spark to make your work stand apart.

Take the Robert Langdon movies (please!)... anybody could've directed them. There is nothing about them that screams, "Ron Howard!" And there's nothing about Ron Howard that screams, "He must have made those movies!"

Dave Olson said...

Backdraft is, as you say, very entertaining and highly watchable despite breaking absolutely no new cinematic ground. How much more satisfying it would have been to discover that the mad bomber actually worked for the alderman, who was trying to silence his cronies, and then framed Adcox (or any of the firefighters, maybe even Stephen himself). Stunts and explosions aside, what we got instead was a toasted [rimshot!] cheese sandwich. There were tons of little moments that seemed to be there for no other reason than we were watching a movie. I'd forgotten that it was written by Widen, who did a much better job with Highlander. It was as though he'd just read a book that said "here's what you need to put in a movie to make it good and stuff", so we get the training montage, the sibling rivalry, the over-eager sidekick, etc. About the only thing you didn't see coming was Stephen's death. Since he played his own father, Kurt Russell has the distinction of dying twice in a movie. The only other time I remember that happening was Pat Roach in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks!.

Anonymous said...

Dave -

Captain Kirk kinda died twice in Star Trek Generations, but the first time he was merely in the Nexus (ugh, that movie). :-)

Given that Widen isn't exactly on the A-list of screenwriters, one could assume that: a.) Highlander was a fluke (not unlike the original Star Wars with Lucas' writing skills)... or b.) he's just not that good and it takes a director more skilled than Howard to make the pages come alive.

Widen apparently tried something similar in the late 90s with the quickly-cancelled TV series Rescue 77.

Anonymous said...

Jed -

I would argue that even "in your face" could go a few different ways. You have celebrities who can praise Obama without necessarily bad-mouthing the other side... and then you have people whose sole MO seems to be badmouthing the other side.

But sadly, we live in a world where all you have to do is mention Obama in a sentence (without complaining) and you're branded a Socialist. Or express even a modicum of sympathy with a conservative viewpoint and you're labeled a racist.

I was talking about this with Andrew recently: Bill O'Reilly sent one of his goons to Sundance where he tried to stir the pot by asking celebs about Obama, Benghazi, etc. On one hand, they mock certain celebs because of their opinions, but then they go ahead and mock the ones who simply declined to give their opinions. And they just assume everyone there is liberal, even guys like Philip Seymour Hoffman who, to the best of my knowledge, has never really talked about his politics in public.

Can't have it both ways!

Anonymous said...

"In a world where there aren't enough movies about firefighters, this one will have to do... at least until someone directs a better (and better written) one,
MY MAN! Stop what you are doing (No really,stop what you are doing. That wasn't figurative, it was literal) and go watch Ladder 49.It's funny that this was reviewed today. Ladder 49 was on yesterday and I went to Amazon and compared reviews of the two movies, as well as making my own comparison.
This was a well written review,and I think your description of Howard as a better carpenter than most was the best description of him so I've read so far.
Backdraft was weakened by the soap opera plot about William Baldwin working in J.T. Walsh's office and you're right - Jennifer Jason Leigh did just look bored. The reason I like it as much as I do is the performance of Kurt Russell at the center of the film. There's a scene at a party where a drunken Russell starts a fight. Scott Glenn gets ahold of him and shakes him and says "Stephen,do you ever wonder why you're stuck at Lt?" Russell,completely without irony,looks back at Glenn and says "No." That scene completely sums up the character.
I like the fact that blue collar guys are portrayed as heroic. The "you go, we go" thing was nobly portrayed and the scenes of men against fire were demigodlike. Just look at the poster for the movie that tops this review,
Backdraft certainly has it's faults but in my humble opinion they are outweighed by it's strengths.
But seriously.go watch Ladder 49. As well as you write it would be interesting to read your thoughts about a comparison of the two.

Anonymous said...

I rember back at Big Hollywood a few years ago some guy got on a rant about how Hollywood hatesanyone with a masculine job,anyone who risks themselves to save others,etc. Back draft was the movie he used to make his point because Scott Glenn's character was an arsonist.
He watched that whole movie and that was the only thing he got from it.
Tsk Tsk

Anonymous said...

Gypsy -

Thanks for the kind words! The "carpenter" line wasn't mine - check out the link I embedded to Grantland's piece for more of that author's take on Howard's style (or lack thereof).

I ran out of room before I could mention Ladder 49 - I've never seen it but I know of it. I'll have to make a point of watching it now and perhaps I should've waited so I could compare the two. (My next review is actually another comparison - watch for it next month!)

[sigh] Another insightful piece by BH. ;-)

As for the portrayal of blue-collar types, there are no doubt many variables (the studio once again under-estimating their audience). But TV seems to be filling that void at the moment.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - I really didn't mean it as an argument, nor would I argue that people from both the left and right get offended by almost everything or anything with which they disagree. Actually, you just underscored the point I was making. As a kid, guys like Bob Hope or Carson could poke good natured fun at presidents and get away with it because it was, in fact, both even handed, and good natured. And he didn't dwell on it. Politics and religion have historically been the two topics to avoid at neighborhood cocktail parties because people can get to heated about them. Hell even the old nightly news casts back in the day tried to appear unbiased. For a variety of reasons, that has all changed. People go out of their way to spout politics. And while those who take a higher road (e.g. praise but don't criticize) are better than the flame throwers, my preference is for celebrities who don't indulge themselves. One of the things I liked about Dylan and Jerry Garcia when they were young is that they didn't actively engage in politics.

Anonymous said...

Jed -

I know. I would also argue that, if Bob Hope and Johnny Carson were doing their respective acts today, every syllable they uttered would be analyzed and people would take offense left and right, since that's just the world we live in today. (Nothing wrong with pissing off both sides, though!) :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I definitely don't feel it to the same extent with Spielberg. Yes, his films have become less daring and more generic, but they don't have the same sense of being manufactured. Spielberg at least always tries to do something original and inventive in his films. Howard seems to have lost his spark of creativity.

PikeBishop said...

That Hope and Carson comment reminds of an interview with John Lovitz a few years ago, when he faced the backlash from the tolerant crowd about being even marginally critical of Obama.

He mentioned a show he had done material that some gays in the audience took offense to. They asked him "Do you think this is some kind of joke?"

Long Pause.

(Lovitz voice:) Uh yeah.................did you happen to see the sign that said "comedy club" on the way in? Don't think you could miss it.

KRS said...

I saw Backdraft when it came out and had a hard time getting past the lack of smoke during the fires. Sometimes, such an obvious fault is a speed bump that takes you right out of the story. I remember being amazed at the list of talent in a movie that didn't seem to deliver the goods - even for the time, it was trope-tastic. Also, I didn't think that it showed much respect for firefighters, but it's been 23 years, maybe I'd think better of it now. Maybe not.

Scott, speaking of people taking offense, I remember a while back watching a Dean Martin roast of Sammy Davis, Jr. that was, shall we say, resoundingly racially irreverent. Sammy was laughing into tears and gave as good as he got. One of the funniest things I've ever seen, but no one would dare tell a single one of those jokes today. None of them were trying to be mean-spirited and weren't taken so - Sammy knew them all personally - which is why those roasts really worked and were so much better than the pitiful insult fests we see today.

Oddly, our comedians today like to be known as "edgy" and only have to drop the f-bomb repeatedly to achieve it - where does that come from?

Too bad people today can't show a little class.

Anonymous said...

I'm off to work - I will respond to everything later tonight! :-)

tryanmax said...

I got nothing to say about Howard. I remember really enjoying Backdraft when it was a new release. Haven't seen it since. But the Backdraft attraction at Universal Studios' theme park was amazing! I can still remember feeling the intense heat of the fireballs mere feet away with only a steel guardrail between me and it as if I'd just been there. I remember watching a behind-the-scenes show on that attraction prior to seeing it. The engineering involved - to allow an audience to witness awesome pyrotechnics safely at only an arm's length, not to mention the rapid reset time - truly a feat of ingenuity. Does anyone know if that attraction is still there?

AndrewPrice said...

It burned down. ;-P

Just kidding.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? At least Ron Howard has (had?) some spark to begin with. There are countless workman directors who simply come in, do the job, and go home. They’re not household names, they don’t win awards, but they turn in reasonably solid work. It’s been that way since the beginning.

Ever hear of Jack Smight? He directed countless TV shows back in the day, along with movies like Midway, Airport ‘75, and The Illustrated Man. And when was the last time he was ever mentioned anywhere?

They can’t all be Spielberg-famous. :-)

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Apparently, my reviews are fodder for bad jokes. Between you and Mike's pun earlier... sheesh! :-)

Anonymous said...

Pike -

That's why I have zero sympathy for people who complain about standup material, including the person who called out Tracy Morgan for a perceived anti-gay comment. I just want to tell those people to f--- off. (And I'm pro-gay marriage, dammit! They need people like me!)

Anonymous said...


Other than Louis C.K. and Seinfeld (who isn’t exactly “edgy”), I don’t follow the standup scene. I imagine some folks just want to see where the boundary is (which is human nature), while others want to break it. I could care less, so long as it’s funny. If they’re not funny, it doesn’t really matter.

I love the Dean Martin roasts! The infomercials for the VHS collections were practically appointment viewing for me, and one day I’d like to get Time-Life’s complete DVD boxset. (Said the 31-year old!)

As I mentioned above, the lack of smoke has been pointed out - it’s just one of those necessary “cheats.” And I didn’t think it painted firefighters in a bad light, but your mileage may vary.

Anonymous said...

tryanmax -

According to Wikipedia, the theme park attraction closed in 2010.

tryanmax said...


Koshcat said...

Some movies have depth and make you think and others are just pure entertainment. Backdraft and Armageddon fit into the latter and when I want something relatively light, these are the movies I turn to. Spielberg was at his best making these (Raiders). I don't think it is a crime that Howard isn't Kubrick. His movies are some of the most entertaining out there.

That said, I agree with everything you wrote here.

Anonymous said...

Kosh -

I don't think it's a crime either, and he does make entertaining movies. There's just something a little less personal/identifiable when it comes to Howard's movies. I suppose I'll never be able to put my finger on it.

I guess it's the difference between, "See that shot? That's a signature Spielberg thing" versus, "Oh, Ron Howard directed this?" There's no right or wrong here. :-)

Koshcat said...

I see what you are saying. If there is anything "Ronny" it might be that he keeps it simple. Maybe too simple?

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