Skip to main content

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.





Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

Ziggy smokes a lot of weed.

Moonfall (2022) (SPOILERS) For a while there, it looked as if Moonfall , the latest and least-welcomed – so it seems – piece of apocalyptic programming from Roland Emmerich, might be sending mixed messages. Fortunately, we need not have feared, as it turns out to be the same pedigree of disaster porn we’ve come to expect from the director, one of the Elite’s most dutiful mass-entertainment stooges, even if his lustre has rather dimmed since the glory days of 2012.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

All I saw was an old man with a funky hand, that’s all I saw.

The Blob (1988) (SPOILERS) The 1980s effects-laden remake of a ’50s B-movie that couldn’t. That is, couldn’t persuade an audience to see it and couldn’t muster critical acclaim. The Fly was a hit. The Thing wasn’t, but its reputation has since soared. Like Invaders from Mars , no such fate awaited The Blob , despite effects that, in many respects, are comparable in quality to the John Carpenter classic – and are certainly indebted to Rob Bottin for bodily grue – and surehanded direction from Chuck Russell. I suspect the reason is simply this: it lacks that extra layer that would ensure longevity.

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989) (SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch , or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins . Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon.  It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy ( Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Bi

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the