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Did it look at you? Did the fire look at you?

Backdraft
(1991)

(SPOILERS) Ron Howard, never one to recognise his profound limitations of talent, here attempts a big, special-effects-laden family saga come action spectacle in the style of Tony Scott (Backdraft even has Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack). Some of his stylistic imitations land effectively enough – there are undoubtedly very fine shots in the movie, courtesy of DP Mikael Salomon – and he has assembled a mostly stalwart cast, but his firefighting Top Gun attempt at a cash-grab blockbuster stumbles through biting off more than it can chew – it runs to two-and-a-quarter hours, and the last half hour is especially hard work – and having too little where it counts: like a vision, a feel for the Chicago milieu, and most crucially, a sympathetic lead actor.

A case in point of how getting the latter key element right can spell bonanza is the following year’s A Few Good Men; would Backdraft have boomed with Tom Cruise in the Brian McCaffrey role? It certainly would have ensured there was a focus in its stacked-to-the-rafters casting. As it is, you end up more engaged by the supporting characters and wishing the movie was actually about, say, De Niro’s fire investigator Rimgale sparring with JT Walsh’s Alderman Swayzak. This is far from a great De Niro role. You might even call it the kind of phoning-it-in, pay-cheque part he’d become increasingly associated with from the mid-90s onwards. But his chain-smoking, battle-scarred veteran still bears a certain alertness, and he’s buoyed whenever he’s sharing a scene with someone who ups his game, be it Walsh or Donald Sutherland.

Ah yes. Donald Sutherland. I’d like to ask screenwriter Gregory Widen the point in the process when he added loony arsonist Ronald Bartel to the mix, as Backdraft was released about three months after The Silence of the Lambs, yet features a Hannibal Lecter equivalent in the mad maestro visited by the authorities as an aid to sniffing out who’s responsible for the arson plot at the centre (well, kind of) of the story. Perhaps Widen was simply aware Thomas Harris’ novel was in production and recognised a good idea when he appropriated one (the novel had been out since 1988, and before that, Michael Mann’s Manhunter also saw Lecktor being mined for morsels).

The consequence is that Backdraft looks as if it is shamelessly plundering its betters. That being the case, Sutherland takes the opportunity to steal every moment he’s given, even as they’re not exactly top drawer; the scene in which Bartel faces the parole board and his preparation comes undone when Rimgale cross-examines him is pretty low-level fruit, but it plays like gangbusters because Sutherland simply embraces the full-on monster loon (“What would you like to do to the whole world?”; “Burn it all”). Later, Brian gets his Clarice moment with Bartel – Rimgale has fallen on an unfortunate railing and is resting up – and the latter takes the opportunity to suck up the inflammatory details (“Did it look at you? Did the fire look at you?”)

Unfortunately, having a mystery plot means it requires a resolution, and with limited suspects on the table, Widen plumps for the old “last guy you’d expect” trope: eminently loveable seasoned pro Axe Adcox (Scott Glenn, also in The Silence of the Lambs, of course) has been setting the fires in retaliation for Swayzak closing down firehouses, attempting to do so with minimum casualties. As motivation goes, it’s pretty lame and dissatisfying, but since Backdraft hadn’t succeeded in evolving into a compelling drama anywhere else by this point, it isn’t like it lets the side down substantially.

In its bare bones, this feels like the kind of movie James Gray (We Own the Night) or Gavin O’Connnor (Pride and Glory) would later make: a generational, urban blue-collar drama that can’t resist more sensationalist impulses (so never likely to stray in Sidney Lumet territory). The relationship between Brian and big brother Stephen (Kurt Russell) is established through hectoring on the part of the latter and flashbacks to dad (also played by Russell) perishing in a blaze; Stephen (“Bull”) doesn’t think Brian has what it takes to fight fires – he doesn’t want to see him inevitably perish in one – but lives by the seat of his pants, spurning a mask and taking risks he shouldn’t. This has cost him in the best movie cliché tradition – his wife Helen (Rebecca De Mornay wasted in thanklessly ornamental mode) has left him and he lives on a dry-docked boat.

Russell’s as good as you’d expect (and both more than a decade older than Baldwin and bearing zero resemblance). And in fairness, he and Baldwin do have chemistry, but the relationship is running on exhaust fumes, and neither manages to make you really care. Baldwin’s still carrying the baggage from Flatliners, where he was well cast as a weasely pervert, and this role represented a so-brief window when Hollywood thought the Baldwin boys might all catch fire at the box office. Alec had more chances (and more misses), while Billy’s fate was sealed with Sliver – again, playing a kinked sleazo. Which he’s a duck-to-water at, but no one really wants to see him, let alone in those roles; he’s inherently unappealing.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is tragically miscast as Brian’s love interest Jennifer, probably the only time she succumbed to trophy girlfriend fare; you can tell she’s uncomfortable (there’s a terrible scene where Brian and Jennifer make out on top of a fire truck that is absolutely designed with Cruise and Kelly McGillis in mind). Also showing up are Jason Gedrick (his best moment would come on TV a few years later in Murder One), Clint Howard and very briefly David Crosby.

Howard makes the movie functionally, facilely and efficiently. His handling of action has come on in leaps and bounds since Willow, so there’s that, but his genre journeyman attitude – coming after fantasy-comedy (Splash) geriatric SF (Cocoon) broad laugher (Gung Ho), sword and sorcery (Willow) and ensemble comedy (Parenthod) – evidences very clearly that the more lightweight and reliant on his performers rather than his own acumen he is, the better he fares. He’d proceed to show his limitations again in Far and Away before turning it around with back-to-back goldmines of NASA propaganda piece Apollo 13 and Mel-getting-mad Ransom (subsequently, the sorry Robert Langdon pictures and his collaborations with Russell Crowe would again emphasise his shortcomings in terms of acumen and intellect).

Still the fire scenes, pretty much all genuinely staged, are very impressive. Widen is a former firefighter, and he was proudest of the locker-room moments of camaraderie between the fighters. Which are… well, yeah. I’m not sure such laddishness should be encouraged, but whatever floats your burning boat. He recently penned Backdraft 2, in which both Baldwin and Sutherland returned. The only miracle is that De Niro couldn’t be persuaded. Probably too busy trying to play forty years younger at the time. Or not trying at all.

Backdraft didn’t do boffo biz, then. It was a summer of faint disappointments, with only Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves really matching expectations (and City Slickers exceeding them). The list of so-so performers – Point Break, Thelma & Louise, Soapdish, Doc Hollywood – and outright underperformers or stinkers – Mobsters, Hudson Hawk, Dying Young, The Rocketeer, Regarding Henry – is quite a lengthy one. Backdraft came in fifth for the season, but no one at Universal had cause to crow over the result.





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