Why hasn’t there been more movies about fire fighters?
I mean, there’s been tons that involve military personnel and countless films made about policing and police work in general, so why don’t we see more big screen stories about the brave men and women who risk life and limb in order to quell raging infernos acts moments notice? One of the main answers may well simply read: Backdraft, a movie that ignited in cinemas back in 1991 and pretty much became the gold standard for any other big budget movies that wanted to concern itself about the extinguishing of flames.
So, the question now arises: what makes Backdraft so noticeable, that no other, full on attempt to look at the world of fire fighting has ever managed to catch on? Is it because it’s really, really good, or is it because it’s really, really bad – it’s time to hold your breath and kick in that door because we’re we’re about to get to the heat of the matter…
Brian McCafferty, after a period of moving from dead end job to abandoned career, has decided to come back to the trade that his family has worked in for generations, that of a Chicago fire fighter. However, multiple years of screw ups and a history of quitting hasn’t exactly endeared Brian to his older brother, Stephen “Bull” Mccafferty, a man who is a living legend within the crew of Engine 17 and in order to keep an eye on him, he ensures that his brother gets stationed with him in a precinct that seems to spontaneously ignite every other hour.
While the sparks predictably fly between the brothers (both have daddy issues, but Brian has extra after seeing his father cooked alive on the job back in ’71), there’s something else going on in the streets of Chicago as some of these fires that the McCafferty siblings are arguing their way through seem to have been serial cases of arson designed to kill a specific target each time and after Brian has had enough scrapping with his bro, he quits and ends up working with prickly arson investigator Donald Rimgale. However, this means he eventually discovers that whomever is starting these fires is someone with a orginal agenda who knows everything there is to know about fire, but doesn’t want it to spread: e.g. a fire fighter.
However, all these multiple threads will collide as this pyrotechnic plot and family drama all come to a head during a gargantuan blaze located at a chemical plant where loyalties will be tested, hatchets will be buried and a big ass conflagration will somehow, temporarily play second fiddle to some good old male bonding.
But who will still be standing once the smoke literally clears and all the fires – even metaphorical ones – have all been put out?
On one hand, Backdraft is a movie that wears its 90’s credentials on its soot-stained sleeve and that goes all out with its soap opera plot of two feuding brothers and the various people caught in their orbit. On top of that, the story ladles on a serial arsonist story line that rolls up its sleeves and immediately starts brawling with the more dramatic aspects of the script. However, much like something out of a WWE main event, a third contender strides to the ring in the form of the truly staggering fire fighting sequences that play like a ‘roided up version of The Towering Inferno. While this triple threat match between three entirely different genres struggle for dominance, it results in something of a good news, bad news scenario that gifts us truly magnificent moments, but never a truly satisfying whole.
The loser of this genre-busting three way is undoubtedly the drama aspect of the film which takes every arguing brother trope you’ve ever seen and then jabs an animal stimulant in its jugular just for good measure. We’ve got daddy issues, a broken marriage, resentment, jealousy, a brawl at a hospital and plenty of instances where tempers seem to flare as often and needlessly as the damn fires – are Chicagoans renowed for their tempers or something? Thankfully, the over familiar material is elevated by the cast, which sees Kurt Russell, Robert De Niro Scott Glen, Donald Sutherland and arguably the squintiest Baldwin, William, take some reliably solid direction from Ron Howard to make the numerous shouting bits moves as painlessly as possible. However, this isn’t much comfort to Rebecca De Mornay and Jenifer Jason Leigh who have to contend with mere ex-wife/girlfriend roles as they struggle to comfort these men who risk their lives on a regular basis.
Faring noticably better, despite feeling more tacked on than a corkboard, is the whole thriller aspect of the story, which not only perks the movie up a bit, and even gives us an out-of-the-blue, Silence Of The Lambs subplot involving De Niro’s investigator and Sutherland’s flame-loving fire bug verbally jousting in a jail cell. It also gives us a much needed breather from the yelling brother stuff as it takes Brian out of the equation completely and makes him a rookie partner as he tries to figure out whodunit – or, more accurately, who set it.
However, the reigning champion of the battle of the plots is undoubtedly all the disaster movie stuff that still remain, to this day, some of the finest scenes of on-film fire work ever committed to celluloid. Running with the genius premise that the fire is treated as an actual character, it’s filmed as if it’s a living, breathing, skin searing creature that snakes across the ceiling, almost gives itself away with sinister puffs of smoke that drift from the under cracks of doors and spreads up walls like a predator rearing up on its hind legs. Basically, Howard allows us to feel the same sense of awe the characters feel once we lay eyes on it’s terrible majesty. Watching our cast turning hoses onto broiling flames, it weirdly gives me memories of James Cameron’s Aliens, with the hopelessly outnumbered Colonial Marines firing frantically as a wall of Xenomorph death. With such a strong vision guiding the action scenes, they unsurprisingly prove to be the best parts of the movie and its here where the dramatic and thriller threads are finally able to merge like the heat, fuel and oxygen needed to make fire in the first place.
Simply put, if by the climax you aren’t clenching your jaw with man-tears in your eyes while a wounded Kurt Russell watches as Baldwin fight a gargantuan conflagration all by his lonesome with pride (“Look at him! That’s my brother God damn it!”), then something may be seriously broken within you.
Messy and predictable, Backdraft’s parts may be greater than its whole, but most of those parts turn out to be absolutely flaming magnificent with some strong performances and some flawless fire work upping the script’s average to something that’s a perfectly acceptable way to burn a couple of hours.