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USA 1991
Directed by
Ron Howard
136 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1 stars


If you were looking for a compendium of modern Hollywood clichés you need look no further than Backdraft. From Gregory Widen‘s script to Ron Howard’s directing, Hans Zimmer’s music to the performances from an otherwise eye-catching cast, it is so unrelentingly formulaic as to, given the talent involved, beggar belief.

The film opens with a preamble in which a young boy (who looks like director probably looked at the same age), Brian, sees his fireman dad (Kurt Russell) immolated by a fireball (caused by the eponymous and much-to-be-exposed backdraft). One hopes the egregiously mawkish tone is because the tragedy is seen through a child’s eyes, but the bad news is that the film pretty much remains in the same vein.

We then cut to the main story which begins some twenty years later. After a patchy personal history Brian is now a rookie fireman and his first assignment is at Chicago’s Engine Company No. 17, where hey-ho, his older brother, Stephen (symptomatic of the film’s heavy-handedness, played by Kurt Russell) also is stationed. Unlike Brian, Stephen is, of course, a living legend in the fire-fighting world, just like Dad, and it doesn’t take long before the two are going head-to-head. To spice this material up both men have rocky relationships (with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rebecca DeMornay respectively) that they are trying to repair. And just for good measure Brian’s g.f. works for a crooked politician (J.T. Walsh) who is rorting fire department funds. And why not chuck in Robert DeNiro as a canny arson investigator?

Not only does all of this material unfold with dire predictability and laughably trite dialogue but there is an anthropomorphizing theme that is re-iterated to within an inch of its life and which reaches its apogee in Donald Sutherland’s Hannibal Lecter of arson - that fire is not just fire but has human like qualities and that “to kill it you have to love it just a little bit” (or words to that effect).

If the hackneyed script is at the heart of the problem and Howard gives us what presumably exactly was on the page, it’s hard to respect Sutherland or DeNiro for their respectively embarrassing and by-numbers contributions, Leigh is woefully miscast and Baldwin appears to be channeling Nicholas Cage. Russell does give his all as the alpha male father substitute (nicknamed “Bull”, which deserves to be read both ways) but nothing can shake the stereotypicality of his character. The scene in which he emerges from the flames heroically holding a black child is a gem of ridiculously earnest self-importance.

The only thing about the film that deserves commendation is the pre-CGI-era recreation of the fires. Needless to say, however that does not a good movie make. Surprisingly, or maybe not, the film was a box office hit.




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