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Backdraft Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 February 2007

Image This huge, elaborate thriller, tautly directed by Ron Howard, is as corny as a 4th of July fireworks show, and about as spectacular. The script by Greg Widen is old-fashioned and uncomplicated, with stereotypes instead of characters, and a plot as obvious as a knock-knock joke. But this kind of melodrama's familiarity can actually be comforting because we don't have to judge anyone, we don't have to struggle with concepts — they become part of a well-known ritual, and the setting and events pop into relief. As with all melodramas, the story of "Backdraft" isn't anywhere nearly as important as how the story is told — and Howard tells it very well. It's the same kind of familiarity as an old-fashioned song, a Western, or a private eye whodunnit.

This was the first large-scale movie about firemen, which is surprising, because it plays like a remake of an old Jimmy Cagney-Pat O'Brien movie, even to the emphasis on Irishness. There was probably a B-movie somewhere along the line about firefighters, but it's hard to trace — and probably was pretty small-scale. "Backdraft" is big-scale blazes.

Kurt Russell is Stephen "Bull" McCaffrey, tough Chicago firefighter who never plays by the book, who regards fire as his own personal enemy, and (like a lot of real firefighters) thinks of it as being virtually alive. He's brave but reckless, the hero of his company, the despair of his estranged wife (Rebecca de Mornay). The movie centers on the conflict between Stephen and his younger brother Brian (William Baldwin), who, as a child, saw their fireman father (also Russell) die in a blazing apartment. (Look quick at the owner of the apartment: it's David Crosby, of Crosby, Stills, Nash and sometimes Young.) Brian's drifted around from job to job, having once quit the firefighting academy, but now he's back, pulled both by the lure of entering The Family Business, and because of that indelible image of his father's incendiary death. (Brian even made the cover of Life magazine as a boy, holding his father's helmet, staring with helpless horror into the fire.) Being an older brother, Stephen is both protective of Brian, and convinced that Brian can't do anything as well as he can; he's also convinced that Brian simply can't cut the mustard as a fireman, and deliberately overtaxes and overcriticizes the younger man. Frustrated, Brian does quit Engine Company No. 17, and begins working for the city's arson investigator, Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro).

And this ties in with the title of the film. We've already seen one man killed by a bizarre, blazing explosion resulting from a backdraft. This is when a slow-burning fire has consumed all the oxygen in a room, with the temperature climbing and only natural gases now burning. The introduction of any amount of oxygen — in this case, by opening a door to the burning room — causes a terrific explosion that snuffs itself out. A backdraft. Somewhat unexpectedly, the movie turns into a murder mystery.

Like Stephen, the McCaffrey's lifelong friend John Adcox (Scott Glenn), and in fact all Chicago firefighters, Rimgale dislikes ambitious alderman Martin Swayzak (J.T. Walsh), whose successful efforts in cutting back on the number of firefighters have resulted in the remaining men being heavily overworked. But Rimgale has to work with Swayzak; Brian's old — and renewed — girlfriend Jennifer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) works for Swayzak, setting up a link Brian is uncomfortable with.

We soon realize — before the firemen do — that an arsonist is setting the backdraft fires. (Some deleted scenes show Stephen secretly following clues to this idea.) The mystery, of course, is who and why, but both are easy to deduce. As with a lot of first-time mystery writers, Gregory Widen has made a primary blunder: he doesn't provide enough suspects. But Ron Howard deemphasizes the mystery in favor of showing us gigantic, astonishing fires, the men battling them, and the interplay between the various characters. However, the brother-vs-brother storyline is so hackneyed that the mystery becomes more interesting despite its obvious nature.

The dozens of effects workers were headed by Allen Hall, who deserves some kind of medal for creating such convincing infernos. (It resulted in a spectacular attraction in the theme-park part of the Universal City tour.) In addition to the apartment house fire at the beginning of the film, there are also the various backdraft explosions, a huge blaze in a garment factory, and the climactic chemical factory fire. This takes place in a vast, cavernous room with fire roaring from all corners, and the characters being trapped on crumbling catwalks. Barrels that seem to have been filed with rocket fuel and which have easily breakable bottoms shoot into the air. Even “Ladder 49” didn’t have such spectacular fire effects sequences.

Furthermore, for the first time that I can recall, in any movie whatsoever, some of the cast members (Baldwin, Russell & Glenn) are listed among the stunt personnel. It's no mere gesture, because we see all three men working with — and within — these raging infernos.

These raging torrents of flame are the most eye-popping movie fires of all time. For what seems like a half an hour at a time, all we see are incandescent yellows and oranges, as the vast sheets and puddles of flame fill the screen. There is a ghastly beauty to all this, of course; everyone loves to stare at fires, and there's a lot of fire here to stare at. But beyond that, Allen Hall and his crew depict on screen that sense of the fire being actually alive that is referred to so often in the film. A dancing spiral of flame from a ventilation grill hovers in front of Baldwin's sweating face; Russell leaps through a strange, marbled-looking wall of blazing gases; like a giant amoeba of orange, a sheet of flame creeps along the vertical side of a tank in the chemical factory. Never has a natural phenomenon been so personified on screen.

Russell is good as the tough older brother, but William Baldwin is less satisfying as the younger. De Niro is, as always, completely convincing as the horribly-scarred arson investigator; he clearly has done his homework. Rimgale is a dedicated professional, and De Niro makes him specific. Donald Sutherland has a wonderfully psychotic cameo as an imprisoned arsonist who loves flames, and provides an important clue to Brian in his investigation of the backdraft blazes. Scott Glenn is solid and reliable as the long-time fireman.

The movie is full of well-observed touches: the firemen all smoke, for example. The scenes in the firehouses have an aura of authenticity, and the ending, a rousing tribute to the profession of firefighter, makes you want to hug the next fireman you see. The score by Hans Zimmer is effective, and the photography by Mikael Salomon is big and handsome.

Technically, this is a ground-breaking movie, and Ron Howard almost physically elevates the filmabove the simple melodrama of Widen's familiar plot. Dramatically, "Backdraft" is definitely nothing new, but the satisfying familiarity of its melodrama made this a hit—certainly with firemen, as one of the ancillary documentaries shows.

The HD DVD is a showcase for high definition, but is spectacular in a way unlike earlier such home theater wonders: it’s all that fire, so much so that the predominant color in the film is orange. Fire being what it is, there’s not a lot of detail and definition in many of the blazes, but in those crawling clouds of marbled-looking fire—almost like naked brains—there IS a lot of detail, so much so you might easily imagine your screen giving off heat.

It’s true that in some of the most brightly-lit screens, some grain can be seen, but that was true of the movie in its theatrical engagements, too. Most of the exteriors are at night, which reduces the detail overall, but this isn’t a travelogue of a big city—it’s a slam-bang, all-stops-out spectacle of firefighting.

The extras include a long roster of deleted scenes, some of which include characters otherwise cut out of the film, some show Russell’s character carrying on his own secret investigation into the backdraft deaths. Evidently, the idea originally was to make this even more of an epic than it was.

“Backdraft: Igniting the Story” is an utterly standard, uninteresting “making-of, the kind of thing prepared for almost all movies for the last 20 years or so. However, the segment on casting, “Bringing Together the Team,” includes both footage shot when the film was made and brand-new footage shot in early 2006. This makes it more interesting.

However, the two best shorts are, first, “Backdraft: The Explosive Stunts,” again mixing old and new footage, and focusing on stunt coordinator Walter Scott and special effects pyrotechnics expert Allen Hall. Actors Russell, Baldwin and Glenn also appear, and explain the actions that led to their unusual stunt crew listings. The other good short is “Creating the Villain: The Fire,” a discussion of how the effects for “Backdraft” were accomplished. Allen Hall is fatured again, as is special effects foreman Clay Pinney and effects worker Albert Brenner.

The collection of extras concludes with a short piece of real-life firemen (Station 73, Santa Clarita) discussing their lives, “Backdraft” and the aftermath of 9/11.

“Backdraft” the movie is a moderately entertaining Hollywood blockbuster, but it’s a great disc to show off the wonders of a well-designed home theater system.

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