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Backdraft

***
1991

‘…a decent thrill ride, and a smoking-hot slice of old-school entertainment…’

Working our way backwards from Jungle Cruise, seeing movies based on rides brought back memories of the days when rides were based on movies; Backdraft was the first ride based on an R-rated movie. The Backdraft experience was part of the Universal Studio attractions and was only taken down in 2010, although lives on at the Singapore and Osaka outlets. A barrage of physical, hydraulic effects, it was quite a thrill for anyone scared of fire, which is most people, and left audiences with charred eyebrows as flames shot out of exploding barrels before our eyes.

Backdraft the movie did something similar back in 1991; Ron Howard’s drama-thriller may have been fairly predictable in terms of offering a coming-of-age drama about William Baldwin’s Brian McCafferty making it as a fire-fighter. This was fused with another tale about forensics expert Shadow Rimgale (Robert DeNiro) investigating who might be using explosives to kill off a number of artfully-chosen victims in the Chicago area. Could Brian’s brother Stephen (Kurt Russell) be a suspect? Does fire-bug Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland) know more than he’s saying from jail? Throw in Scott Glenn, JT Walsh, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rebecca DeMornay and you’ve got a stacked cast, but it’s the effects that steal the show here.

Backdraft waxes lyrical about fire as a living entity, but it’s not an entity that’s easy to get to know or befriend; when Shadow removes his shirt, we see the cost to his physical being, as skin-grafts have left him with severe scarring. But we also get to see some wowser photography of fire, and there’s more than a few striking tableaux. Howard doesn’t get the credit he deserves as one of the safest pairs of hands in the business; most directors only make a handful of good films, but with a CV featuring this and Splash, Coccoon, The Paper, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Frost Nixon and Rush, Howard must be one of the most consistently accurate hitters out there.

Backdraft belongs to a time when a hit summer movie was expected to appeal to all ages and denominations, rather than just persuading the same core-group of fanboys to turn up. Baldwin may seem lightweight in the context of a heavyweight cast, but the role is intended to be a callow youth; Russell and the rest of the cast make up for such shallowness with the most two-fisted swaggering performances this side of a John Wayne movie. A sequel, Backdraft 2, has turned up within the last couple of years, and despite its rather inessential quality, I’ll be seeking it out for sure. You can never make enough films about heroic public servants, and Ron Howard’s  Backdraft was a decent thrill ride of its time, and a smoking-hot slice of old-school entertainment to boot.

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  1. Whew, 30 year flashback backdraft! There’s a term in psychology called backdraft; it’s sort of like empathy–and how it can make u feel worse when u try to walk a mile in another’s shoes. I liked the movie in all it’s blazing non-CGI glory, but wasn’t pleased with Howard’s cardboard portrayal of the women of Backdraft. To me, fire and fire effects should have gotten an Oscar. But what do I know…I’m an air sign?

    • Yup, I genuinely couldn’t say anything positive about the female roles in this, and that’s a frequent state of affairs. At least this is a reminder that great visuals don’t need CGI. Rewatching Fowles French Lieutenant’s Woman so hopefully some less macho flavour to come. Backdraft is very John Wayne, for good and bad.

  2. Remember far more about the fires than the stars. Forgot DeNiro was in it and didn’t care a hoot about the storyline as long there were raging, explosive fires destroying everything in sight. Towering Inferno on steroids. You might ask not why Hollywood made so many movies about destruction but why we the audience gulped them down.

    • The fire effects are amazing, even putting Towering Inferno to shame. But the story is very average, and perhaps that’s the point. De Niro’s investigator and even Sutherland’s Hannibal-lite firebug are stock characters, and the action is the real star.

  3. a huge big deal when it came out. Captured the nation. I saw it a number of times. My old man loved it. I remember NOT a tiddle of the story.

    • I love to hear this, because there was a time when a blockbuster DId capture the nation. Backdraft pretty much pummells you into submission with heroic characters and dangerous situations, but appeals to all ages and should be celebrated for that.

  4. Ahhh, so many crass comments immediately spring to mind. But I’m better than that (most of the time)

    I haven’t seen a lot of Russel’s movies. I suspect most of it is due to them not being SFF oriented.

            • I don’t consider Stargate as SF since it’s based on events which actually happened to me.

                • Is this circling back to buttocks? Because I am not having any nonsense. Red cards ready.

                    • I would be prepared to insult you on a daily basis, the Alex Good treatment. Can I sign you up for that?

                    • Ok, we have a special offer in being buried in your own dung, how does that sound?

                    • Well, do you want insults hurled upon you, or to be the victim of an endless character assassination? Alex is riding both at the moment, but probably best to set one plate spinning for starters. I’ll do my best to do both for the price of one.

                    • You absolutely deserve the best I can muster. I’ll get up early and think horrible things about you, and the comments I leave will completely ignore your high quality writing and focus on some inanity like the picture on the cover of a book or a malfunction in the star rating system.

                    • Oh, that sounds perfect, just what I was looking for!
                      Everyone accuses me of only allowing bootlicking sycophants to comment on my blog, so this will put paid to that scurrilous rumor!

                      How soon can you start? and is this the Full Bunty package? Only the best for my blog, mind you.

                    • The Deluxe First Class Full Bunty with trimmings and extras starts tomorrow…can I throw in some ribald mockery of your personal appearance too? Just as a bonus!

                    • The pleasure is all mine. When I think about who best deserves a endless torrent of hateful vitriol, you are the perfect candidate. Enjoy!

  5. I remember watching this at the cinema and my pal burst into tears after it. It is probably one that Kurt is better in than some, and the sequel does sound intriguing especially with some of the cast returning… keeping my eyes peeled for this review now…

  6. Backdraft is a very solid and highly watchable movie, absolutely! And Howard had made some really great flicks over the years, indeed – Frost/Nixon, Rush, Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind are all superb, not to mention Willow! 😁

    • That’s the spirit! Just saw it on Netflix, and it’s big and chunky ! Funny how everyone has different favourites; I’m not a Willow man, but think Rush really works for me. I’ll keep circling back to this; how many living directors have made this many ‘highly watchable’ movies? Not many, IMHO.

      • Willow is a childhood fave, so more of a nostalgia-fueled ride than appreciation of skill. But Rush is impeccable, and I even never had been – and never will be – a car racing fan 😉 Howard managed to find some acting chops even in Hemsworth, and that’s an achievement!

        • Same here! Not a car racing fan, but the movie, and Hemsworth, were fab. I’ll need to keep working to find the mojo for Willow, but it seems well loved…

  7. Great write up. I’ve had this at the back of my mind as a film I should rewatch for a while now but this has pushed it to the top of the list. I find Ron Howard to be very far from a safe pair of hands, his movies are really varied. Some are brilliant – Frost/Nixon, Apollo 13, Parenthood, many are solid – Splash (doesn’t hold up), Cocoon, Willow, Far and Away, Ransom, Rush, but some are really poor like Solo, A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code and Hillbilly Elegy. His is one of the most inconsistent career of any major Hollywood director.

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