Skip to main content

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


(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.

Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.