Backdraft

Backdraft has always seemed like my kind of movie, so I can never figure out why I’m not a fan.

Genre(s): Action, Crime, Drama

Director: Ron Howard

Actors: Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland, Robert De Niro

Year: 1991

MPAA Rating: R

Country: USA

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I love guy movies. I love onscreen explosions. What’s not to love about Backdraft? I spent the entire movie working on that question, and finally realized that it has no soul. It’s just a didactic, mechanical rendering of a story that is neither plot-driven nor character-driven. It just flops around like a goldfish on the carpet.

As the film begins, we meet our two main characters as little boys. Steven and Brian are at the firehouse with their dad, and when the alarm sounds, they hop on the truck with him. They watch reverently as Dad (Kurt Russell-With-A-Moustache) pulls a little girl from a burning building, and it’s clear that they know just how lucky they are to call this American hero their own. But then he goes back into the building, and with one swift KA-BOOM! his fire hat flies out a window and lands at Steven’s feet. Obviously this is extremely sad, but with Ron Howard jerking on your heartstrings like some evil puppetmaster, it’s hard not to roll your eyes.

Years after this traumatic event, we catch up with Steven and Brian. We recognize Steven right away, because he’s played by Kurt Russell-Without-A-Moustache, and he’s a fireman. They took more of a chance with the casting of Brian, as he grew up to be Billy Baldwin, but after a few seconds you get used to the idea. Steven was eager to follow in his father’s footsteps, and Brian was reluctant. For some reason there is a great deal of tension between them, and this is only exacerbated when Brian graduates fire school and goes to work for Steven.

As if the sibling rivalry didn’t provide enough conflict, it seems like nobody’s getting along with anybody these days. Brian hasn’t seen his girlfriend, Jennifer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), in six years, and she’s not sure she wants to pick up where they left off. Steven is separated from his wife, Helen (Rebecca DeMornay), and lives in a scrapyard on a boat that looks like it once belonged to Popeye the Sailor Man. None of this tension lends a thing to the storyline. It’s always harder to root for people who don’t get along than people who care about each other (think Holly and John in Die Hard).

Aside from all this personal drama, Brian’s trying to get his footing as a fireman as the department deals with the wrath of an arsonist. Steven tries to share some of his sage advice on fighting fire, “Don’t take that kind of shit from it. Don’t let it know you’re scared,” but it seems that Brian just doesn’t have what it takes to stare fire in the eye and call it a son of a bitch. Instead he takes an office job with the fire inspector (Robert DeNiro), and tries to crack the case of the backdraft murders.

Suspicion moves boringly from one source to the next, and even settles on Steven for a spell. We do enjoy a lively meeting with Ronald (Donald Sutherland), an incarcerated arsonist who wants to burn up the whole world. Kudos to Donald for giving the only inspired performance in the movie. I wonder if Ron Howard tried to make things easy on the actors by giving them names similar to their own. Notice that Donald plays Ronald, Jennifer plays Jennifer, and William Baldwin plays brother to a guy named Steven. Hmm.

As Brian’s love life and career begin to look up, Steven’s situation begins to deteriorate. Naturally he heads home to hammer on the roof, because really, what else is there to do when you’re feeling upset? His wife climbs out to talk to him, and before you know it they’re rolling around on the bed in what would be a rather graphic scene if Steven didn’t have his jeans on. I’m not sure what’s going on there, and Helen must be confused as well. The next morning Steven thinks he has his life back, but she pulls him aside and gives him the old “you’re such a good person that I can’t be with you” speech that always makes my head want to explode. How can you split with someone because they have too much integrity?!

Poor Steven doesn’t have long to ponder this anomaly, as he and the boys are soon fighting a huge fire and the arsonist himself. One death-defying leap follows another as the building crumbles around them, and after awhile I was just smacking myself, going, “That totally would have killed you!” It’s not suspenseful or impressive, just rather unbelievable and absurd. I wish I could say I was moved by the film’s tragic/heroic ending, but alas, I was still shaking my head.

I watched the Bonus Materials on the Anniversary Edition after writing the bulk of this review, and immediately felt guilty for not liking the movie. There were the cast and crew talking about the effort that went into making the film, and how it’s a tribute to the selfless firemen who protect us everyday. Fans will undoubtedly enjoy this in-depth glimpse behind the scenes, but the more I watched the worse I felt. When people risk life and limb for a movie it should be better than this.

Backdraft has always seemed like my kind of movie, so I can never figure out why I’m not a fan. I love guy movies. I love onscreen explosions. What’s not to love about Backdraft? I spent the entire movie working on that question, and finally realized that it has no soul. It’s just a didactic, mechanical rendering of a story that is neither plot-driven nor character-driven. It just flops around like a goldfish on the carpet.

As the film begins, we meet our two main characters as little boys. Steven and Brian are at the firehouse with their dad, and when the alarm sounds, they hop on the truck with him. They watch reverently as Dad (Kurt Russell-With-A-Moustache) pulls a little girl from a burning building, and it’s clear that they know just how lucky they are to call this American hero their own. But then he goes back into the building, and with one swift KA-BOOM! his fire hat flies out a window and lands at Steven’s feet. Obviously this is extremely sad, but with Ron Howard jerking on your heartstrings like some evil puppetmaster, it’s hard not to roll your eyes.

Years after this traumatic event, we catch up with Steven and Brian. We recognize Steven right away, because he’s played by Kurt Russell-Without-A-Moustache, and he’s a fireman. They took more of a chance with the casting of Brian, as he grew up to be Billy Baldwin, but after a few seconds you get used to the idea. Steven was eager to follow in his father’s footsteps, and Brian was reluctant. For some reason there is a great deal of tension between them, and this is only exacerbated when Brian graduates fire school and goes to work for Steven.

As if the sibling rivalry didn’t provide enough conflict, it seems like nobody’s getting along with anybody these days. Brian hasn’t seen his girlfriend, Jennifer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), in six years, and she’s not sure she wants to pick up where they left off. Steven is separated from his wife, Helen (Rebecca DeMornay), and lives in a scrapyard on a boat that looks like it once belonged to Popeye the Sailor Man. None of this tension lends a thing to the storyline. It’s always harder to root for people who don’t get along than people who care about each other (think Holly and John in Die Hard).

Aside from all this personal drama, Brian’s trying to get his footing as a fireman as the department deals with the wrath of an arsonist. Steven tries to share some of his sage advice on fighting fire, “Don’t take that kind of shit from it. Don’t let it know you’re scared,” but it seems that Brian just doesn’t have what it takes to stare fire in the eye and call it a son of a bitch. Instead he takes an office job with the fire inspector (Robert DeNiro), and tries to crack the case of the backdraft murders.

Suspicion moves boringly from one source to the next, and even settles on Steven for a spell. We do enjoy a lively meeting with Ronald (Donald Sutherland), an incarcerated arsonist who wants to burn up the whole world. Kudos to Donald for giving the only inspired performance in the movie. I wonder if Ron Howard tried to make things easy on the actors by giving them names similar to their own. Notice that Donald plays Ronald, Jennifer plays Jennifer, and William Baldwin plays brother to a guy named Steven. Hmm.

As Brian’s love life and career begin to look up, Steven’s situation begins to deteriorate. Naturally he heads home to hammer on the roof, because really, what else is there to do when you’re feeling upset? His wife climbs out to talk to him, and before you know it they’re rolling around on the bed in what would be a rather graphic scene if Steven didn’t have his jeans on. I’m not sure what’s going on there, and Helen must be confused as well. The next morning Steven thinks he has his life back, but she pulls him aside and gives him the old “you’re such a good person that I can’t be with you” speech that always makes my head want to explode. How can you split with someone because they have too much integrity?!

Poor Steven doesn’t have long to ponder this anomaly, as he and the boys are soon fighting a huge fire and the arsonist himself. One death-defying leap follows another as the building crumbles around them, and after awhile I was just smacking myself, going, “That totally would have killed you!” It’s not suspenseful or impressive, just rather unbelievable and absurd. I wish I could say I was moved by the film’s tragic/heroic ending, but alas, I was still shaking my head.

I watched the Bonus Materials on the Anniversary Edition after writing the bulk of this review, and immediately felt guilty for not liking the movie. There were the cast and crew talking about the effort that went into making the film, and how it’s a tribute to the selfless firemen who protect us everyday. Fans will undoubtedly enjoy this in-depth glimpse behind the scenes, but the more I watched the worse I felt. When people risk life and limb for a movie it should be better than this.

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