Judge Daniel MacDonald was surprised to find "Disco Inferno" was not on the soundtrack.
Silently, behind a door, it waits. In that instant it can create a hero…or cover a secret.
Backdraft brings the heroic escapades of the Chicago Fire Department to the screen in a blaze of glory, with plenty of melodramatic yelling in slow motion, montages set to Bruce Hornsby, and, most importantly, absolutely stunning footage of fire itself. Made right on the cusp of the CGI revolution, it is a landmark achievement in practical effects, and director Ron Howard's first "big" picture. All that's well and good, but is it still as entertaining now as it was fifteen years ago?
Facts of the Case
Kurt Russell (Escape From New York) and William Baldwin (Sliver) star as the brothers McCaffery, whose sibling rivalry often seems to come to blows. Brian, played by Baldwin, has just become a probational fireman, and much to his chagrin, brother Stephen has arranged for them to be stationed together, ostensibly so the oldest can take care of his younger charge. Much bickering and posturing ensues.
Meanwhile, someone is setting deliberate fires, leading to the deaths of prominent political figures, and Fire Investigator Donald "Shadow" Rimgale (Robert DeNiro, Goodfellas) is going to find out whom it is. The fires all have one thing in common: they're all "backdrafts," meaning the fire eats up all the oxygen in a sealed room, and lies dormant, just waiting for some poor soul to open a door and give a breath of explosive life.
Add in Donald Sutherland (JFK) as a creepy jailed arsonist, J.T. Walsh (Sling Blade) as shady Alderman Swayzack, Jennifer Jason Leigh (Rush) as Swayzack's assistant and Brian McCafferey's love interest, and Scott Glenn (The Silence of the Lambs) as fellow firefighter John "Axe" Adcox, all under the direction of Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and you've got a smoking hot cast in a combustible movie.
Fire is cool.
That could have been the subtitle of this ode to heroism and brotherly love. Regardless of how you feel about the story, the sheer awesomeness of the fire footage in this picture is undeniable. Fire crawls along ceilings, it billows along the floor, it dances, it spirals, it does everything but pull up a chair and read Dickens. Added to the imagination with which the fire scenes are staged is the fact that it's all real: Howard shot some test footage trying digital fire, and was unimpressed with the results, so instead he set lots and lots of things on fire, including his actors. One unfortunate casualty in the CGI age is the "Wow, how did they do that?" reaction that well done special effects used to give an audience, and there's no better example of the power of the real thing than here.
But while the fire is the draw, Kurt Russell and William Baldwin do well to give a history to their sibling characters; you really feel that they grew up together, and that they're always carrying around the baggage from past transgressions. An interesting combination of love and animosity exists between the two that injects tension into otherwise pedestrian scenes. A couple of scenes really spell out the dynamics of the relationship, the best of which is when they fight a fire together for the first time: a flare up sets both brothers on fire, and while Brian rolls around on the floor screaming for someone to put him out, Stephen keeps on fighting the fire, not even noticing that his back is ablaze. It's portrayed with a surprisingly soft touch in a movie that otherwise has all the subtlety of a soccer ball to the face.
This was Russell's first "father figure" role, and while he kept on doing leading man action hero stuff for a while, it really showcases the acting chops we've seen with his more mature roles. I mean, in a scene where he's barely hanging on to a fellow firefighter with one hand, he makes his cheeks shutter from the strain. Now that's acting!
The rest of the cast is fine, DeNiro in particular adding some nice touches to his role, but this isn't exactly an acting showcase. Most of the characters are pretty stock, and you can see the arcs coming from a mile away.
The often-maligned Ron Howard does an admirable job, making this my favorite of his films. While there's not a lot of subtext, this is an ideal canvas for his particular style: firefighters are the one group of people who everyone can agree are selfless heroes, so pumping the inspirational intensity up to eleven actually seems pretty fitting.
Cinematographer Mikael Salomon (The Abyss) developed a lighting scheme to showcase fire in a unique way, raising the levels of ambient light on the set so that detail and colour variations could be seen in the flames, rather than looking uniformly blown out. Shot composition and editing make a point of showing how many stunts were done by the actors themselves, enough that Russell, Baldwin, and Glenn are in the Stunt Performers section of the credits.
This Anniversary Edition improves upon the previous DVD release with a newly remastered picture, full of fine detail and true colours, and an excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround audio track that puts the viewer right in the middle of each burning building. Disc one contains 45 minutes of deleted scenes (!), in full-frame rough cut quality, along with the feature itself. Disc two has a number of featurettes, each between ten and twenty minutes long, all of which are quite interesting. I especially enjoyed "The Explosive Stunts" and "Creating the Villain: The Fire," for their revelations on how the fire effects were achieved, and what kinds of precarious positions actors and stunt performers were put in to get the more indelible images from the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Make no mistake: this film is not for the lactose intolerant, due to its high cheese content. Sweeping score, now familiar theme music to Food Network's Iron Chef, is infused into nearly every minute of the picture, pretty much telling the audience what to think and feel at any given time. It's overblown in nearly every way, and while I think the style works in this particular case, those looking to criticize won't have to look far.
Further, the arson subplot seems somewhat forced, distracting from what really makes the picture work. And the big reveal of who's setting the fires and why, well, the less that's said about that the better.
I would have appreciated a Ron Howard commentary with this package, having enjoyed his musings on Apollo 13, and even better would have been a track of real firefighters discussing what's realistic and what's Hollywood fantasy. A bit of this is touched on in one of the special features, but if I ran Universal's DVD department, that's what I would have done.
Million Dollar Baby it's not, but for the sheer thrills that can only be delivered by the movies, you can't fault this one. Anyone with popcorn in their cupboard should have this on their shelf.
Not guilty, for reasons of being too much fun.
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Scales of Justice
• Ron Howard Introduction
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