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.