FILMS

Fear of frying

An overblown movie about firemen goes up in flames

Brian D. Johnson June 3 1991
FILMS

Fear of frying

An overblown movie about firemen goes up in flames

Brian D. Johnson June 3 1991

Fear of frying

An overblown movie about firemen goes up in flames

BACKDRAFT

Directed by Ron Howard

It is remarkable that Hollywood—which has made heroes out of cops, soldiers, sailors, spies, spacemen, boxers, sprinters, lawyers and journalists—has taken so long to get around to firemen. They seem like such obvious candidates. Backdraft, the first major film ever made about firefighters, has a strong cast and some impressive action sequences. Flames—crawling, dancing, leaping and rolling—have never performed with such virtuosity on screen. The story, however, fails to ignite. Backdraft’s title refers to the violent explosion that occurs when fresh air suddenly enters a room where flames have consumed all the oxygen. It could also refer to the violent flatulence that occurs when an overblown epic is consumed by clichés.

Set in Chicago, Backdraft is a tale of courage, sacrifice—and sibling rivalry played out with high-pressure hoses. It is about two brothers, Stephen (Kurt Russell) and Brian (William Baldwin), competing over the legacy of a fireman father who died in the line of duty when they were children. Big brother Stephen is a tough veteran who likes nothing better than to brave the heat; Brian is a sensitive rookie trying to overcome his fear of frying. As Brian’s commanding officer, Stephen is determined to make his younger brother pay some serious dues. Meanwhile, the city’s arson investigator, a burnt-out veteran named Donald (Robert De Niro), is trying to find the culprit behind a series of mysterious blazes.

The narrative jumps from one fire to another, climaxing with a ludicrous axe battle in a burning chemical plant. All the smoke in the world, however, cannot hide the gaps in the barely comprehensible plot. And the romantic subplots—featuring Rebecca De Momay and Jennifer Jason Leigh—are half-baked.

Among the men, the best performances come from the supporting cast. In a richly amusing cameo as a psychotic arsonist, Donald Sutherland almost steals the movie, his tongue flickering obscenely inside his lips. And De Niro, brilliant as usual, gets all the best lines. He describes fire as an animal—“It breathes, it eats, it hates. The only way to beat it is to think like it.” Backdraft, however, turns into a sanctimonious combat movie in which the fire seems smarter than the film-makers.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON