After the success of our nostalgic Days Of Thunder review we decided to tackle another gem of modern cinema and what makes it still so appealing over 30 years later. Strap on your breathing aparatus and flame retardant underpants – we’re getting into 1991’s firefighter action-thriller – Backdraft!
Backdraft is a Ron Howard-directed film starring Kurt Russell, Billy Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, J T Walsh and Bobby Deniro.
Brian mcaffrey has just passed his firefighter exam and now he’s joining the same firehouse as his brother. It’s the story of 2 brothers who are chicago firefighters dealing with a series of engineered arson incidents.
Cast And Characters
It’s a strong cast with adequate performances all round. For 1991 there’s a good mix of fresh talent with seasoned actors.
Russell steals the show in this one, obviously – to the extent he blows the rest of the cast off the screen entirely. Not only that, the actor also plays the part of his characters father – he’s that good. Debateably this is his finest dramatic performance after The Thing (1981). In the grand scheme of things, Backdraft lands in right after 1989’s Tango And Cash, right before 1993’s Tombstone, which then leads us up to 1994’s Stargate. The Kurt Russell golden zone! The actor has had a number of fine films (1998’s Soldier being an underated gem) but this represents a solid cross section of his artistic output for sure.
The most surprising performance is put in by William (Billy) Baldwin – this is not only his best performance but an amazing performance for any actor, especially against a lot of hugely powerful acting dynamos. I did find myself asking where it all it went wrong after a fantastic performance like this. The actor had a consistent amount of output over the years but nothing that stuck like Backdraft.
Bobby Deniro turns in a performance unlike his usual roles. Instead of his usual take-no-shit gangster character he plays a grizzled fire scene investigator which makes for some enjoyable and intriguing scenes. When the scenery isnt on fire we’re treated to his insight and a bit of education on the role itself. This character could have easily been the focus of his own film. Deniro‘s portrayal makes for a strong supporting backdrop and enjoyable in his more-diminished role.
JT Walsh leans on his wheelhouse with this one by playing the absolute spanner. Some casting just leans heavily on an actors natural ability to play the douche bad guy and Walsh nails it at every turn.
Rebecca de Mornay picks up the emotional slack however theres not a great amount of chemistry on screen. This does however make for a nice dramatic role for the actress and her performance is solid in that aspect.
We’re talking about performances? Backdraft represents the best the element of fire has ever looked on screen. Prove me wrong! The fire FX are practical. They used real fire, real stunt teams. This was something Ron Howard considered using CGI for but realised it looked like shit. The fire (arguably the real star of the show) has an almost demon-like quality to it. An intentional choice, i’m sure. The growling and hissing, the slow dancing shots, the sinister music. Just. Beautiful.
The characters in the film, for the most part have an air of reality about them. Themes of relationships, family troubles and beaurocracy are handled with a sense of gritty focus and grounded realism which means you believe the portrayal, and even care about the characters lives.
Overall the cast leave it on the screen, even being credited as part of the stunt team. The actors even walked away with a few burns, cuts and bruises for their art.
“Its a living thing, Brian. It breathes, it eats and it hates.”
Hans Zimmer on the strings for this soundtrack, so you know theres gonna be emotional swells and epic/edge-of-your-seat rises and falls. The music is emotional and heroic in all the right places and a force to be reckoned with.
The intro scene which sets Brian McCaffrey’s back story up is a beautiful and tragic introduction into this world. The character recreates the pivotal “Time magazine” moment a few times during the rest of the film.
The scene itself is filmed in a smooth Ron Howard-esque fashion. Keep an ear out for the extra that sounds like Bill Burr shouting “all my stuffs up there“. The scene is thick with “his dad is up there” commentary but sets the character up nonetheless.
It’s also worth noting that before a young Boba held Jango‘s helmet there was this scene in Backdraft.
The new recruits head out to their first fire like it’s a frat party. All hyped up and full of beer, i’m surprised no-one stuck some Caddyshack-style montage music over the top of it.
Brian’s team is the coolest gang of firefighters to ever exist and they all have cool names : Bull, Butch, Jimbo, Oaklahoma, Mittens, Bodie, Doyle, Tiger, Jewellry Man….
They are the type of guys who say “SHAKE AND BAKE BOYS, I THINK WE GOT A BARBEQUE!“, “SHOWTIME” or “LETS HIT THIS BITCH HEAD ON” before running headlong into danger. They whoop and hollar and it’s very intoxicating to watch. These are all-American heroes and should be worshipped.
The dynamic of the brothers sibling rivalry is not only expertly written but perfectly distilled in Russell and Baldwins performances. Brian must prove to his big brother he can do the job and isn’t the ‘rookie probie’ he’s been labelled.
The ‘frying pan’ scenes are slow and not overly engaging unless it involves the sibling rivalry. Meanwhile the ‘into the fire’ scenes and firefighting push the story along with the assistance of unbridled action.
If you’re not sold on the brilliance of the film then there’s not much i can do to sway you. Backdraft has got flames, explosions and a fairly decent plot – what’s not to like here? Theres enough in there to engage with and alternatively switch off and enjoy.
There is a sequel to this film, released in 2019 but i can’t bring myself to watch it. Unless of course you feel the need, let me know in the comments!
You will never watch a film like this again, not only for the content potentially triggering the emotionally fragile, but the simplicity/intricacy of the plot and the fire FX on display.
Backdraft does for firemen what Top Gun does for fighter pilots.