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Sunday 20 September 2020

Burl reviews Backdraft! (1991)


Out of the way, it’s Burl, here with an emergency review! Yes, it’s a movie about firemen today, and certainly the most popular of this subgenre: Ron Howard’s Backdraft! Ha ha, Howard, it’s considered polite to excuse yourself, you know!

Now, this is not the best movie Ron Howard ever made - that would have to be either Apollo 13 or Grand Theft Auto! But it’s almost certainly the most fire-filled! It’s the tale of a Chicago fire-fighting family: the dad, back in ’71, is killed fighting a blaze, and the two sons grow up to be pompiers themselves! The older brother, played by Kurt Russell from The Thing, is known as Bull, perhaps because he’s ready to charge into any conflagration and battle the flames with his bare hands if needs be! The younger sibling, enacted by William Baldwin from Flatliners, phumphered around for a bit before deciding to have a go at the family trade, and much of the movie is made up of tiresome arguments between the brothers!

But there’s other stuff going on too! A criminal is murdering people using surprise backdrafts, which is to say quick, explosive little fires that kill their victims and then blow themselves out! Robert De Niro from Mean Streets is investigating these incidents, and the younger brother helps him out! Donald Sutherland from Heaven Help Us and The Puppet Masters plays the local pyromaniac, Ronald, who helps out Hannibal Lecter-style from his flameproof prison cell! And there’s romance, too: Jennifer Jason Leigh from Eyes of a Stranger and Grandview U.S.A. works for slimy city councilman J.T. Walsh, from Eddie Macon’s Run and Misery, and plays bohankie with young Baldwin, whereas Bull, in his grumpy, stoic way, would like to get back together with his estranged wife, played by Rebecca De Mornay from Risky Business!

Scott Glenn from The Right Stuff and The Keep lurks in the margins of all this, waiting patiently for his paternal fireman character to become narratively relevant! Baldwin, meanwhile, shows off an alarming aptitude for spying on men at just the moment they take their shirts off to reveal telltale scars! Ha ha! And the fire sequences and attendant trick effects are suitably spectacular, if not always crucial to the plot! It’s not The Towering Inferno, wherein the disaster is the thing; the fires here are more window dressing than anything! They're attractively shot, though, by Mikael Salomon; and just before this fire movie Salomon worked on The Abyss, a water picture, and Always, which takes place largely in the air! Ha ha, I wonder if he ever got around to shooting an earth picture, just to get all the elements in!

It’s all very much like an extended episode of Emergency!, which at one time was my favourite TV show! Except the scripts for Emergency!, which were no great shakes, were better than this one! It was written by the same fellow who brought us Highlander, and he apparently was himself a firefighter for a few years, and in the incendiary admixture of clunky dialogue and inside-baseball details, both influences show! It all wraps up with that staple of middlebrow 90s cinema: the god-awful end credit theme song!

In short, it’s bad, but with its overqualified cast and terrific fire action, also entertaining and watchable! It caused my son to think twice about his current ambition to become a forensic fire investigator, and I’m not sure what to make of that! In the event, I guess I’ll give Backdraft one and a half BMW windshields!


  1. "Overqualified" is the perfect word for this bunch, if ever there was a "doing it for the nice salary" movie it's this one. Good fire effects, but it's a long two hours. I think Howard's best film is Rush, he's a journeyman at best, but you could see he was truly engaged with that one, being a gearhead, and it really pays off.

    1. You're right that Rush is quite good, but as Ron Howard car racing movies go, I still prefer Grand Theft Auto, which, if you'd caught me around age eight or so, I'd have told you in no uncertain terms was my favourite movie of all time!