Backdraft (1991)

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Review by Tim of Not Now, I’m Drinking a Beer and Watching a Movie.

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One of the great mysteries of this film-watching life is why basically every film ever made about fire-fighters is so mind numbingly boring. All the ingredients should be there – fire trucks whizzing through the cities, blokes winding down with a bender after a shift, oh and all the freaking FIRE everywhere too.

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Unfortunately Backdraft, starring our man De Niro as a fire inspector, does nothing to change this legacy. The story concerns two brothers who have both entered the fire fighting trade, which is the family business as their father was a revered figure in the Chicago fire fighting community. From there, stuff happens. Family feuds, drinking sessions, racing fire trucks through the streets (to a soundtrack of 80s power pop of course), explosions, fire related disasters and so on and so forth. Nothing much happens that you will particularly care about though. Credit where credit is due – some of the fire effects do look really spectacular and are not particularly dated, even after 20 years. There is also some reasonable scope in these scenes, with the fires wreaking massive destruction. The other highlight is De Niro’s first scene, where he rocks up to investigate a blaze, pulling on a cigarette. I may not be a fire investigator by trade, but I am pretty sure smoking a durrie as you sift your way through the ashes could contaminate the evidence.

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Indeed De Niro plays third fiddle in this film, with the lead roles falling to Kurt Russell and one of the Baldwin brothers that no one gives a shit about. Russell shows in this film that he is one of those actors who is pure charisma. He exudes it throughout and brings intensity to his role that is really not there in the material he is delivering. This is helped immeasurably by the fact that the no-name Baldwin brother is apparently one of the least charismatic people on earth, let alone those who made it as actors. In his scenes with Russell, he is totally overshadowed, becoming a shrinking, nothing presence when we should be going on a journey with his character. Don’t even get me started on how rubbish he looks when he attempts to share the screen with Bob. This is De Niro at 60-70% and he makes Whatshisface Baldwin look miserably inept at this whole acting thing. You have to feel as well that the story would be a lot stronger if it focused on one of the brothers, instead of attempting to tell two stories. As it stands, neither of the arcs is at all satisfying. Backdraft is directed by Ron Howard which explains quite a lot. Don’t get me wrong, Howard is a very competent director and has made some cool films such as Willow (1988), Apollo 13 (1995) and Frost/Nixon (2008). But he has never been the type of director who can elevate middling material. Give him a middling script and a garbage lead actor and you are not going to get anything satisfying.

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In terms of the De Niro factor, he is good in this. Unfortunately he just does not feature enough to make it a memorable flick. It is a shame that this film couldn’t be the exhilarating fire fighting film I always long for. It was also a shame that through this whole film, I was unable to come up with one with one witty play on words involving the title and the crappiness of this film.

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19 thoughts on “Backdraft (1991)

  1. Good work here, man. It’s been ages since I’ve since this but I remember thinking it wasn’t all that bad. Who knows how it holds up today, though, and I’m not normally a fan of Ron Howard. I’ll have to give it another look.

  2. I like this considerably more than you, Tim. It isn’t great (I might give it 7 out of 10), but I remember it being entertaining. I also remember it getting pretty decent performances out of actors who don’t always give them.

    And that De Niro and Donald Sutherland overshadowed everyone else in the film.

    Of course, I haven’t watched it in close to 15 years, since I was in y late teens. Maybe if I saw it again, I’d hate it. Who can say?

  3. I have to disagree with you on this one. Backdraft certainly won’t go down as a great movie. But I do think it’s good. I haven’t seen it in a while but I remember enjoying quite a bit.

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