If fires had agents, not to mention publicists, the seven spectacular blazes (or is it eight--with all that smoke, it’s easy to lose track) that energize “Backdraft” would have their names up in lights and the film’s nominal stars would end up in small print. Because nothing anyone human does in this rather conventional smoke opera can hold a candle to conflagrations so eye-popping they make “The Towering Inferno” look like leftovers from “The Little Match Girl.”
Possibly the first film to have a “Pyrotechnics Created by” credit, “Backdraft” (countywide) truly shows us fire the way we’ve never seen it before. For these are blazes with minds of their own, swirling rivers and brooding storms of flame and smoke capable of terrifyingly exploding onto the scene like the monster in “Alien.” Not for nothing do firefighters here talk to fire, calling it names like “the animal” and “the beast,” treating it like a personal enemy. For these fires are fascinating, capricious creatures who can always be counted on to do the unexpected. Which is more than can be said for their much more stolid and predictable flesh-and-blood counterparts.
What director Ron Howard and screenwriter Gregory Widen, himself a former firefighter, have come up with is a throwback to those big-screen, big-cast epics of the past, the kind with ads that read, “They Laugh! They Love! They Fight Fires!” Stars pop up everywhere (“Hey, isn’t that Donald Sutherland as a fey pyromaniac?”) but putting them to good use is something else again.
“Backdraft” (rated R for language) tells the tale of the battling McCaffreys, Stephen (Kurt Russell) and his kid brother Brian (William Baldwin), a pair of brawling hotheads constantly at each other’s throats. Even as the merest tykes in the film’s prologue, they find something to good-naturedly bicker about, but their laughter turns to (yes) tears when their heroic firefighter dad dies in the line of duty in front of Brian’s horrified eyes.
Cut to 20 years later. Brian, a classic ne’er-do-well, has come back home to Chicago to try to make it as a firefighter. Not exactly his biggest fan is older brother Steve, aptly nicknamed Bull, the toughest dude in the department and, that’s right, Brian’s commanding officer. “In this job, there is just no place to hide,” he lectures the kid first chance he gets. “You have a bad day here and somebody dies.”
Wandering through this family drama like Banquo’s ghost is arson investigator Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro), nicknamed the Shadow, who is trying to determine the cause of a series of backdrafts. That’s firefighter talk for a particularly nasty situation that occurs when some poor soul opens the door on an oxygen-starved blaze and causes a fiery explosion straight out of hell. When Brian gets involved in Rimgale’s investigation, the plot starts to, you’ll pardon the expression, heat up.
Directing this kind of hairy-chested melodrama, which contains enough macho camaraderie to stock a lifetime’s worth of beer commercials, is something new for Ron Howard. Howard gets a lot of energy into this film, doing especially well in the action scenes, but he has been less successful in trying to make the dramatic elements come alive. Though the actors are convincing when the flames are hot, almost every human interaction once things cool down has a limited, by-the-numbers feel to it. A major part of the problem, clearly, is screenwriter Widen, whose previous feature script for “The Highlander” was similarly long on action and short on recognizable human emotion.
The result is that, except for Kurt Russell and Scott Glenn as a veteran firefighter, both of whom get a lot of mileage out of the sheer physicality of their roles, almost all the actors in “Backdraft” (even young Baldwin, Alec’s brother, whose big break this was to be) seem wasted and barely used. This is especially true of the two talented women, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Brian’s old flame and Rebecca DeMornay as Steve’s estranged wife, both of whom have little more to do than the firehouse dog. Even De Niro’s innate naturalism seems awkward and out of place in the film’s contrived situations. And while it is a treat to see this kind of old-fashioned film making a comeback, it’s hard not to wish that the story grabbed us emotionally as convincingly as those darn fires.
Kurt Russell: Stephen McCaffrey
William Baldwin: Brian McCaffrey
Robert De Niro: Donald Rimgale
Donald Sutherland: Ronald Bartel
Jennifer Jason Leigh: Jennifer Vaitkus
Scott Glenn: John Adcox
Rebecca DeMornay: Helen McCaffrey
An Imagine Entertainment presentation of a Trilogy Entertainment Group, Brian Glazer production, released by Universal. Director Ron Howard. Producer Richard B. Lewis, Pen Densham, John Watson. Screenplay Gregory Widen. Cinematographer Mikael Salomon. Editor Daniel Hanley, Michael Hill. Costumes Jodie Tillen. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Albert Brenner. Art director Carol Winstead Wood. Set designers Harold Fuhrman, William B. Fosser, Gary Baugh. Set decorator Garrett Lewis. Special Effects and Pyrotechnics Created Allen Hall. Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (language and one scene of sensuality).