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‘Backdraft’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 24, 1991

 


Director:
Ron Howard
Cast:
Kurt Russell;
William Baldwin;
Robert De Niro;
Donald Sutherland;
Scott Glenn;
Jennifer Jason Leigh;
Rebecca DeMornay
R
Under 17 restricted


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Maybe the fire should get top billing in "Backdraft." It's the best and brightest thing about Ron Howard's firefighting movie.

Thanks to high-powered special effects, the fire assumes a life of its own. It lurks behind closed doors. It builds up to an oxygen-free thunderhead in the walls, then explodes with awesome fury. It's the incendiary equivalent of the "Jaws" shark.

Aerothermodynamics may explain this predatory disappearing act. But no science can justify Gregory Widen's fire-damaged script. Director Howard is so mesmerized by the flames, he squirts formulaic lighter fluid over everything. A conflagration of hyped-up movie cliches, courtesy of George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic special effects shop, scalds your face.

The main story is about the sibling rivalry between Chicago firejock Kurt Russell and dopey-eyed greenhorn William Baldwin. Their fireman father died in action 20 years ago and they've been duking it out ever since. The movie's also a whodunit, in which arson inspector Robert De Niro tries to track down the professional who's been torching buildings around the city.

Actually, De Niro manages to get through this drama without being burned, despite the poetic pronouncements he has to utter.

"It's a living thing," he tells Baldwin, referring to the fire. "It breathes. It eats. The only way to beat it, is to think like it. You gotta love it a little."

You gotta love "Backdraft" a lot to keep track of the subplots. Russell gets into bar fights over estranged wife Rebecca De Mornay. Baldwin has an affair with civic assistant Jennifer Jason Leigh, while her alderman boss (J. T. Walsh) seems to have a criminal agenda. Meanwhile, De Niro goes way back with Donald Sutherland, a crazy pyromaniac whose psychotic understanding of fire Dr. Hannibal Lecter would kill for.

"Backdraft" is also about House 17, the toughest, manliest unit in town. These guys (including Scott Glenn and Jason Gedrick) find big, dangerous fires and douse 'em. They also indulge in male-bonding that would make the cast of "Top Gun" cringe. There are more high fives in this movie than a lifetime of Monday Night Football games. They drink heavily. They josh in the shower. They don't talk, they spit out Realguyspeak: "Show time!" yells Russell, as the team faces another scorcher. "Let's take this bitch head-on."

Obviously, male bravado is omnipresent in fire stations across the country, not to mention construction sites, sports clubs and pool halls. But Howard practically fogs up the lens with Jimmy Olsen-ish adoration, and scorer Hans Zimmer never met a screen moment he couldn't serenade to death.

Howard is guilty of the cheapest screen moments. In a scene reminiscent of a TV commercial, a distraught mother is rescued from a burning building. Naturally, her baby's still in there. Russell tears into the smoking inferno. A few moments later, he bursts in slow-motion from a flame-engulfed room, the baby in his arms. You can imagine what composer Zimmer does with this. Then there's the time Baldwin and Jason Leigh enjoy a private, steamy moment atop Engine 17. Guess what happens next. It'll kill ya. At least, that's the idea.

Maybe this movie could have been avoided if someone had just let Howard ride on a fire truck when he was a kid. But now he's grown up, he can make big-budget movies and he won't take his hand off the siren.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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