When Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin) was a child, he idolised his father who was one of the most respected firefighters in Chicago, but he will never forget the day he finally allowed him to attend one of the blazes his father routinely extinguished. He watched as the man climbed up the ladder to the top floor of a smoking building, then rescued a little girl, but just as he was about to investigate further a collapse occurred and to Brian’s horror he saw his father die in the accident. This has not stopped him wishing to follow in his parent’s footsteps, so has just passed the exam to become a fireman – but he will be working alongside his older brother Stephen (Kurt Russell), and there is no love lost between them.
Once the nineteen-eighties had happened, many movies began to look back to the works of the seventies for inspiration as it began to be regarded as a golden age, and a return to the disaster flick for Hollywood was one of the symptoms of that preoccupation. Backdraft was there near the beginning of the decade to set out the parameters of a genre where special effects were king, and seeing as how computer graphics were advancing in leaps and bounds the setpieces could be as spectacular as they wanted them to be. With this, on the other hand, they were still working with stunts and practical effects, which indicated it was something of a transitional entry in the revitalised cycle, and also that the fire was really the biggest star.
That in spite of director Ron Howard taking the rules of the seventies and casting a bunch of stars in all the main roles, so you had Baldwin when he was trying for major celebrity as effectively the lead, which didn’t really work out when he was more difficult to cast convincingly than he seemed, and Russell who had been an actual star from that era whose box office power had been sustained, and then Robert De Niro as the fire investigator in a part that at the time made audiences wonder what he was doing there but now comes across as par for the course. The two love interests, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rebecca DeMornay, were merely present to make sure we didn’t think Brian and Stephen were homosexuals, however, and served no other purpose.
But being the nineties there had to be a twist, and that was most typical of this period: that’s correct, there’s a serial killer on the loose which turned this into a whodunit of sorts, though not much of one when the big reveal showed the culprit to be the star who had nothing to do in the rest of the story. It did offer Donald Sutherland to offer his best Hannibal Lecter impersonation as a pyromaniac who is locked up but still is called on by De Niro as a consultant, in spite of being plainly bonkers and not someone you would trust to light an oven for your dinner, never mind supply advice for catching the arsonist. But then, that was this film all over, always going for the big effects, the big emotions, and the big absurdity.
Not to mention some seriously big slabs of cheese, Backdraft was purest fromage from the overheated script by Gregory Widen (an actual fireman who had gotten his start penning Highlander) to Hans Zimmer’s unintentional parody of a bombastic score. The dialogue was dreadful, the characters cartoons, the sincerity groaning, therefore the saving grace was the flames which overshadowed every actor in the film and gave by far the most convincing performance. When the stars playing the firefighters didn’t bother to put on their breathing equipment because if they did we wouldn’t know it was them under the masks, perhaps that wasn’t saying much as realism was patently not at the forefront of everyone’s minds, yet with everything geared to be as overemphatic as possible to make sure the audience felt they were getting their money’s worth, a certain pomposity invaded the tone that was hard to shift. Presumably we were intended to go away feeling proud of the firemen, but if you were already Backdraft was verging on the farcical in its button pushing.