Backdraft June 17, 2017
Robert De Niro
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Rebecca De Mornay
2 Hrs., 17 Mins.
In Backdraft, which gives us an inside look into the triumphs and tragedies of firefighting, William Baldwin and Kurt Russell are Brian and Stephen McCaffrey, brothers and fellow firefighters who work under the Chicago Fire Department. Having lost their father at a young age (Brian witnessed his demise while shadowing him on the job as a boy), both aspire to prolong his legacy, even though an obvious rivalry sometimes amplifies an unsaid family feud.
In the film, though, their work has become more dangerous than ever. A serial arsonist is on the loose, targeting important names in the city. Because the perpetrator is such a savvy pyromaniac, specializing in explosive backdrafts, predicting who exactly they’ll target next is almost an impossibility. Teaming up with arson investigator Donald “Shadow” Rimgale (Robert De Niro), the department has to remain on guard, to tread premises of interest more carefully than ever. Brian and Stephen must put aside their differences for the greater good, too.
If that sounds like something of a snoozer of a storyline, you’re not wrong in your preconceived notions: indeed, Backdraft is orthodox to the point of resembling a television procedural. Even the subplots, which cover the romantic lives of Brian and Stephen (the elder McCaffrey is intent on rebuilding his broken marriage, the younger keen on winning the heart of a former flame), are mostly rote — the majority of the film’s writing is.
But because Backdrift cinematically parallels a particularly good meal at a chain restaurant on a hot summer night, it doesn’t much matter that most of what goes on is by the numbers. What matters is how we feel. And what we feel, fortunately, is mostly awe. The special effects are exquisite — this is the kind of filmmaking that leaves us sitting speechless in astonishment, wondering just how everything happening in front of us was conceived and executed. The climax, massive, incendiary, and audacious, is one of the more spellbinding action sequences of the 1990s; there isn’t anything like it and there probably never will be.
Good thing that the characters are also so naturally likable — Baldwin and Russell are actors who radiate a sort of unforced, boy-next-door charm, and De Niro has the gritty humanism necessary to make a film as “Hollywood” Hollywood as Backdraft seem substantial.
Because the fact is is that Backdraft really isn’t all that substantial. Like most of Howard’s ‘90s productions, it is emotionally broad and almost unbearably accessible, impossible to dislike because its intentions are so good and its quality is so unfathomably high. But I’ll take it — so long as the entertainment value’s lofty and my intelligence isn’t insulted, winning me over isn’t all too big a mountain to climb. B
on Howard’s Backdraft (1991) is brazenly conventional, but because its cast is so winsome, because its storytelling is spiked with a great deal of sentimentality and bittersweetness, and because its special effects are so astonishing, it’s cheese that takes on the form of unforeseeably satisfying comfort food. Your life won’t be any better because of it, but it’s nevertheless 137 minutes well spent — I cannot repudiate the way the movie rigorously diverted me and seduced me into its world of heroism and sacrifice.