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Thursday, 22 February 2007

Backdraft (1991)

It's 1971 Chicago and we're watching fireman Kurt Russell rescue babies from a fire at the cost of his own life, just the sort of overblown and sentimental heroics you'd expect to see in a Ron Howard movie, especially as Kurt's young'un Brian is standing down below watching. It gets him the Pulitzer prize winning cover of Life magazine but that's hardly much of a consolation prize. Fast forward twenty years and Brian has grown up to become a firefighter himself, newly graduated, and played by William Baldwin.

He's been away for six years so most people have either written him off or forgotten about him. Life has completely moved on and he missed all of it, but thinks he can just pick it up where he left off. He even tries to bribe the station master to assign him somewhere on the other side of town to his brother Stephen, the serious 'born to be a firefighter' type, but his brother bribes bigger! Stephen is nicknamed Bull and is played by Kurt Russell and is obviously the man who can within the Fighting 17th, and we get plenty of tension with Brian and Bull on the same crew.

The first fire they fight together sets the pace for me. Whoever is manipulating the fire is doing an incredible job because it certainly doesn't look like CGI and it does a lot of very cool things. However the fire choreography isn't matched by the more traditional choreography as I didn't get much of an image of what anything except the fire was doing. There was no tension and more than a couple of painful cliches under supposed pressure. The fire was definitely the star of the show, as Jennifer Jason Leigh pointed out after reading the script. She wished she could play the fire because it had the best part.

The cliches don't let up either. Somehow I knew there was going to be a point where a black woman jumps in front of the camera shouting 'My baby! My baby!' and sure enough, there she was. Kurt Russell gets to be as heroic as he was born to be and Billy Baldwin is as annoying as you'd expect from a Baldwin. Rebecca de Mornay is as drop dead sexy as she was almost ten years earlier in One from the Heart and Risky Business, even when she's not trying to be, though Jennifer Jason Leigh looks pretty awful. For all the fun of the cameraderie on the force, this entire thing is worthless, but for the fire which deserves the Oscar nomination for best visual effects. The effects throughout are awesome, they're just directed with sheer ineptitude.

Fortunately for us there's another plot going on too with a lot more substance to it, though it takes most of an hour to even get going and gets ignored far too often. Robert de Niro, tougher than he was in Mad Dog and Glory but still calm compared to his traditional power roles, is a severely burned arson investigator called Shadow. He's working a case of serial arson that is proving to be a tough one to crack, that provides the title of the film. These backdrafts are set to kill particular people but in such a way to ensure that the fire blows itself out, hardly standard operating procedure for anyone. Shadow is doing his job but being pestered by an ambitious alderman played by a wonderfully sleazy J T Walsh, and to make it even more interesting, we get to meet Donald Sutherland, a diehard and half sane convicted arsonist who was the cause of Shadow's burns in the first place. He's an obvious Hannibal Lecter substitute, the same year as The Silence of the Lambs, but he's Donald Sutherland so he's a damn fine obvious substitute.

I wish I'd have fast forwarded through the rest of the film to the Bobby de Niro scenes. Other than those, the best thing I can say about Backdraft is that the city of Chicago got four restored fire engines out of the production company after shooting had finished. That, right there, achieves far more than the film does. Hell, Ron Howard's so on the ball that with Kurt Russell and Rebecca de Mornay in the cast, he gives us instead a sex scene between Billy Baldwin and scary Jennifer Jason Leigh. Good grief.

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