May 24, 1991

This may surprise you, but I had never seen BACKDRAFT until now. It’s often mentioned as the Ron Howard movie people like, or a good Kurt Russell movie or ‘90s thriller, or a movie with amazing pyrotechnic effects, and I knew I’d heard people speak of it fondly. I asked on Twitter and received many emphatic confirmations that people consider it a classic, some having even reaffirmed their love semi-recently in a theatrical screening.

So I hope you won’t all feel direspected when I tell you I thought this movie was pretty fuckin ridiculous! Maybe that’s part of what you like about it? It’s also true that the fire stuff is impressive, and of course Russell is good in it, and his character is pretty interesting because he’s about 85% total asshole and 15% guy you root for, which is not the obvious choice. Also, it’s fair to say that there aren’t very many movies specifically about firefighters; usually the macho ball-busting sweaty working class bros who go to the pub together to be rowdy and are in dutch with the old lady because of the job in movies are cops. Also, I can’t fault people for loving the type of corny old-fashioned weepy-eyed hand-over-your-heart astronaut movie type salute it gives to the heroism of firefighters. I think these are all legitimate reasons to like the movie, I’m not questioning that.

But I was exactly one scene in when I realized how much goofier it was gonna be than I’d bargained for. It opens in 1971, when the greatest firefighter of all time, Captain Dennis McCaffrey (Kurt Russell in his followup to TANGO & CASH), chooses by his own free will to bring his young son Brian along with him on a dangerous fire call. The boy watches from the street, smiling innocently as his pop climbs up a flaming apartment building and makes a precarious leap from a fire escape to a window. As far as we can tell from the look on this kid’s face, the behavior of the many adults who made an intentional decision to put him in this situation, and the saccharine score by Hans Zimmer, there is absolutely every reason for this kid to be here and no reason for concern of any kind – only pride and appreciation for all the glory and majesty and shit that’s going on. What do you mean, it’s hard to be flung head first into a movie where everybody is a total fuckin maniac who would do this to a small child for no reason? What is your problem? This is definitely great! This is America! What a time to be alive!

Which is something his old man is not, because a huge explosion swallows him and burps up his helmet – name handwritten on the brim – to land exactly at little Brian’s feet. As the kid cradles the on-the-nose symbol just like Boba Fett did his dad’s severed head at the Battle of Geonosis, not one of the numerous adults present bothers to give one single micro-shit about the child they just idiotically forced to witness the gruesome death of his father, and who is at this very moment standing in harm’s way as he begins a lifetime of grieving on the sidewalk next to the building that is on fire and shooting deadly debris in all directions. Well, except for the photographer, who takes a photo of the worst moment in his life for the cover of Life magazine, then bails.

(That’s alot to deal with there, but it would be wrong not to mention that earlier in the scene David Crosby had a cameo as a guy outside of the building worried about his stuff getting burned. I mean why not? Ron Howard learned his craft from some of the greats, and I’m sure every one of them told him if he was gonna make a movie that requires the audience to immediately invest in a weirdly contrived bit of ultra-melodrama, throwing in a totally puzzling celebrity cameo is the best why to calibrate the exact tone needed to pull it off.)

Twenty years later little Brian has become William Baldwin (following FLATLINERS) and it goes without saying just graduating from the fire academy and about to start his new job of facing his childhood trauma that is so famous they have a framed photo of it at the bar where he’s celebrating with his fellow fire newbie Tim (the IRON EAGLE himself, Jason Gedrick). This is the kind of event where you run into your ex Jennifer (Jennifer Jason Leigh in her followup to MIAMI BLUES) outside and you make eyes at each other but it’s awkward and she disses you and then your buddies spray you with a firehose and Iron Eagle is so excited about a fire truck driving by that you have to follow it to watch the fire. Tim is literally jumping up and down whooping and hollering in excitement a few feet away from a crowd of people presumably watching the destruction of their homes, plus a still smoking corpse that was shot into a parked car like a cannonball. In my opinion this is rude.

Now, different people experience trauma in different ways, but could Brian be thinking about his dad who he watched get blown up in a fire as he now watches a fire while inhaling the barbecue fumes of another human being who was blown up in a fire? Perhaps, perhaps not. Either way, as he watches, a firefighter emerges from the building. Brian stares in awe… because it’s Kurt Russell.

Did his dad survive that explosion after all, or is he imagining this, or just remembering? How is this possible? Well, because they decided to have Kurt Russell play both the hero’s dead dad and his older brother Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey. They figured hey, alot of times in a family there are two brothers who follow in their dad’s footsteps, and one of them looks nothing like the dad at all and the other one literally is exactly him except without a mustache because it’s not the ‘70s anymore. That’s just genetics. And they knew that even if we found that distracting it would be worth it just to set up this moment, this little magic trick, where we think we see a ghost, but actually we see a weird casting choice.

Brian absolutely does not want to work with his fucking asshole brother, but “Bull” arranges for him and Iron Eagle to be assigned to Engine 17, the station he’s at, and that their father was at. They work with John “Axe” Adcox (Scott Glenn the year after THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), who was there when he watched his father get blown up and is a good daily reminder that he watched his father get blown up. Also you gotta assume that Axe is weirded out by working with an identical copy of a friend whose death he witnessed 20 years ago, as well as a terrible firefighter who endangers him because he’s so severely traumatized by having witnessed said death, a disaster which was partly his own fault as one of the terrible decision makers who thought that was okay to bring him.

Brian is a trainee and although there are some montages to Bruce Hornsby songs it mostly seems like there are major fires (and no false alarms or medical calls) to respond to every half hour in this neighborhood. I suppose this is partly explained by the thriller element – somebody is setting explosives to target specific businessmen. Stephen yells at Brian what to do and he gets scared and freezes up and then he has a big moment where he finds a woman in the fire and carries her to safety but then when he asks the medics if she lived they make fun of him because it was a mannequin. Which is a completely legitimate thing to make fun of him for because how the fuck could a person even make that mistake? They continue to make fun of him for this a couple times, but honestly they go way too easy on him. There should be an additional half hour just of them making fun of him and most of it should be montages that indicate it went on for weeks and weeks.

(To be fair, it could’ve been shoe-horned in there as one of those summer movie competition jabs, like how in ’98 a GODZILLA toy got squashed in ARMAGEDDON and Mulder peed on some INDEPENDENCE DAY posters in THE X-FILES. Clearly Howard and company thought MANNEQUIN ON THE MOVE was gonna be their main competition for the summer, and they weren’t gonna go down silently.)

It has been pointed out that the firefighting scenes are inauthentic in that you can see everything because there’s not that much smoke. But they’re exciting scenes. One detail I like is that the floors are slippery from all the water. And there are always seems to be stuff in the way – they have to knock over furniture to get the hose to come through a room. (They seem to enjoy wrecking stuff, too.)

I was kind of dreading Gedrick’s character being the Goose-from-TOP-GUN. He kind of is, but at least he doesn’t die. I think his most memorable scene is when they have a big conversation/argument in the showers and he weirdly keeps talking and spitting out the water that sprays into his mouth instead of just moving his head slightly.

Stephen sees it as his job as older brother to make Brian’s life be absolute shit so that he will quit the job and do something safer. He succeeds, and Brian takes a job as assistant to arson investigator/fire whisperer Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro, who also had GUILTY BY SUSPICION and CAPE FEAR that year) at the behest of Alderman and mayoral candidate Martin Swayzak. Since he doesn’t know he’s in a movie, he doesn’t know that Swayzak being played by J.T. Walsh (also in IRON MAZE, DEFENSELESS and TRUE IDENTITY that year) means he’s a bad guy. And that ex-girlfriend Jennifer is Swayzak’s assistant, and he’s trying to get with her. Anyway, the point is #1, it becomes a movie about trying to catch this bomber, and #2, when Brian arrives to start the job Rimgale goes into his office and changes his shirt so that we will see that his back is covered in severe burns. Another lesson Howard learned from the masters: “Show. Don’t tell. Even if that means awkwardly making the character change their clothes at work for some reason.”

I got a kick out of the scene where Rimgale suddenly decides he’s an FBI profiler in some made-for-cable MANHUNTER ripoff and gives a poetic/worrisome speech about how “It’s a living thing, Brian. It breathes, it eats, and it hates. The only way to beat it is to think like it… the only way to truly kill it is to love it a little.”

It probly reminds Brian of his brother, who said to him during a fire, “Hey – don’t take that kinda shit from it! Don’t let it know you’re scared!”

(Here’s a discussion on a firefighter board where it is agreed that fire is not in fact a living, breathing thing.)

Donald Sutherland (who also had SCREAM OF STONE, JFK and EMINENT DOMAIN that year) plays Ronald, who is the Hannibal Lectre of fire – he was an arsonist who Rimgale not only caught, but saved the life of, and they both have burn scars from it. Sutherland has a great time playing him as a pleased-with-himself weirdo (almost a Renfield type), and I like the scene where Rimgale disrupts a hearing knowing how to make Donald talk horny about arson in front of the parole board who were seconds away from letting him go. As for the scene where Brian interrogates Donald because he’s an arsonist so he should be able to magically identify another unrelated arsonist by getting inside his mind – sure, why not? Reason went out the door in Chapter 1: Bring Your Kid To Your Death Day, featuring David Crosby. Why change the rules this late in the game?

There are parallel subplots about the brothers’ relationships with their exes. Stephen still seems to have a thing for his ex-wife Helen (Rebecca De Mornay right before THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE), and keeps showing up at the house to work on the roof. De Mornay is good at handling the “I feel sorry for him but he’s exhausting” looks. There’s a scene where Stephen is drunk and inappropriate at a charity event and gets in a fight with Helen’s date. I could not stop laughing because everybody pulls him away and he fakes calming down and then tries to leap on him again and even the third time this happens some unseen woman can be heard letting out a high-pitched scream. Somebody get that lady out of there, she obviously cannot handle this party!

Meanwhile Jennifer falls for Brian at work. He gives her a tour of the fire station his office is attached to and she says, “Do you miss it?” The sort of thing you would ask about a job he did for years, but he did it for like two or three weeks I think? Anyway they climb on top of the fire truck to have sex, and suddenly the alarm goes off, the lights come on, people slide down the pole and the truck drives off before they can escape. So they go back to making out (presumably fucking on top of a moving vehicle?) and then when the truck arrives at the fire they bite the bullet and climb down in front of everybody, who kinda act like this happens all the time.

It’s a funny bit of absurdity, but the fire they’re reporting to is one where some major drama goes down between Bull and Axe, Bull makes the wrong call and Tim ends up badly hurt. So Brian is standing there to see his friend brought out on a stretcher and his brother coming out knowing it was his fault. (Somehow his brother sees him standing there without doing a double take.)

Of course I understand that stories don’t always need to be plausible or reasonable, and if a movie wins you over it can get away with all kinds of shit. Many or most people seem to be won over by this movie, so it can do what it wants. But personally I can’t help but picture screenwriter Gregory Widen (HIGHLANDER) having his heart set on scenes where Brian sees his father and best friend injured in fires and then realizing it makes no sense that he would be able to witness either of them while not a firefighter. So he racks his brain and doesn’t come up with anything until finally he says, “Ah, fuck it. I don’t know. His dad just brought him. And maybe he was having sex on top of the fire engine when actual firefighters drove to the fire. I don’t know. Leave me alone, Ron.”

But it’s a great looking movie – the cinematographer is Mikael Salomon (THE ABYSS, ALWAYS, director of HARD RAIN) and the production designer is Albert Brenner (THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER, THE MONSTER SQUAD, UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY) – and it definitely delivers some thrills. There’s a classic move during a fight where Stephen is lifted up and accidentally knocks a light fixture off with his head. And I loved the crazy bit where a firetruck takes a corner wrong and tips over and there’s a closeup of Brian sideways sliding along the pavement. At the end there’s a big showdown where two firefighters (spoiler: Kurt is the red herring, the arsonist is the only other suspect) come face to face holding axes on a catwalk while barrels explode and shoot off like rockets all around them.

And then after the action finale they get a stick-it-to-the-man finale where they dramatically shame the Alderman during a press conference. And somehow Brian remembers a wiseass thing the Alderman said to his brother when he was nearby at the beginning of the movie and repeats it to him verbatim. So he’s dumb enough to mistake a piece of wood for a human being, but has very advanced hearing and memory. That was the enigma hidden behind those squinty, sensitive eyes this whole time.

Anyway at the end Brian has witnessed the fire deaths of both his father and identical looking brother, so naturally he returns to being a firefighter at the station they were at and kind of takes on the role his brother had as mentor to younger firefighters, except less dickish and with very little on-the-job experience to justify it. And he looks out the window and smiles, now that everything is okay.

BACKDRAFT was Howard’s followup to PARENTHOOD. It’s interesting to see him directing Russell, since both had shed being known as child stars to have very successful careers as adults. I wondered if they’d ever crossed paths guest starring on a TV show or anything but according to IMDb the only time was 1976’s Battle of the Network Stars II. Ron was on Gabe Kaplan’s team and Kurt was on Robert Conrad’s. Kaplan’s team was victorious, so Ron then made his directorial debut with GRAND THEFT AUTO.

Screenwriter Widen’s only previous credits were HIGHLANDER and a 1988 TV movie called WEEKEND WAR, but after this he did THE PROPHECY, so you gotta hope he gets good money from the long-running HIGHLANDER and PROPHECY franchises. Of course, BACKDRAFT is also a franchise – Widen actually wrote the 2019 DTV sequel that has a new lead but does bring back Baldwin and Sutherland and that I think I have to watch now.

A better known continuation of the series is the stunt show that ran at the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park from 1992 to 2010 before being replaced by Transformers: The Ride 3D. (It still runs at Universal Studios Japan.) I’ve never been on it (it would’ve spoiled the movie) but apparently it simulates you watching the filming of BACKDRAFT on a soundstage, allowing you to see real flames and videos of Ron Howard, Kurt Russell and Scott Glenn talking about it.

So far there is not a BACKDRAFT 2 stunt show.

Zimmer also scored THELMA & LOUISE, released on the same day. That one is more his blues rock style and this is more his glorious submarines and flags style. He invented both of those before the bwwwwwwwaawwwwwwwww Christopher Nolan style that he handed off to his many children. I like all three, but he chose the right one for the firefighter movie.

BACKDRAFT opened at #1 above WHAT ABOUT BOB? and newcomers HUDSON HAWK, THELMA & LOUISE and ONLY THE LONELY. It was a big hit, making over $150 million and ranking #11 in the year’s box office.

Important note: According to the credits Tic Tac Dough was in the movie somewhere, so that connects it to MEDUSA: DARE TO BE TRUTHFUL, which had a Wink Martindale cameo.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 25th, 2021 at 10:38 am and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

68 Responses to “Backdraft”

  1. This movie makes me wish Donald Sutherland was an antagonist to Eastwood in something. They did two movies together, but were both on the same side for each. He’s such a great villain in stuff, and considering that Clint for the most part rarely had a great villain to go against it would have made for an interesting pairing. Who knows, maybe could still happen.

    David Crosby dabbled in acting a bit during this time. He also has a cameo in Spielberg’s HOOK as a pirate, and was on ROSEANNE for a couple episodes.

    Jennifer Jason Leigh said when she was sent the script, she wanted to play the fire rather than the character she was offered. Reminds me of the story about her audition for the lead in PRETTY WOMAN where she played the role more downbeat than Garry Marshall wanted, as opposed to the happy hooker he’d been looking for.

  2. That makes sense. She must not have been very invested in it. She’s kind of bad in this, but it was after MIAMI BLUES, so obviously she was capable of better.

  3. This review is dead on in every way, Vern. Everything about this movie disappointed me except for the dramatic and crazy (and often preposterous) fire effects.

    I haven’t seen it in thirty years, but I AM surprised to learn that Vern’s opinion wasn’t universal in 1991, or now. I thought we were all on board the “Oh, this movie is so much bullshit” train. I know my friends and I all were.

    This is the movie that convinced me Ron Howard wasn’t destined for great things (though he has made some perfectly good and maybe even excellent movies since). I had high hopes for him in the 80s, even though Willow wasn’t my jam and had already raised my doubts. Maybe part of my problem was Baldwin, but I think — with far less than 20/20 hindsight — that I was still open to his (turns out, non-existent) charms when this came out.

    Having grown up near a firehouse in an area that may have been more prone to fires than some, it was not uncommon to see the fire trucks head out multiple times a day….but certainly not every half hour, or every day as busy as every other, for that matter.

    In conclusion, Keanu Reeves absolutely kicks ass in Parenthood, and I don’t think anyone could realistically get busy atop a fire truck on call.

  4. I always thought this story was real cumbersome. It bounces around from one big melodramatic setup to another for most of the running time without ever really building any momentum. You are just eventually expected to give a shit about the mad bomber subplot, which, let’s be frank, you don’t care about at all because Scott Glenn is in the movie and SPOILER FOR EVERY MOVIE SCOTT GLENN IS IN that means that he’s the turncoat. I just watched FIRESTORM, the other movie where Scott Glenn is a turncoat firefighter, and it made me compose this little ditty in my head:

    I am your mentor and your friend
    You’ve come to me for help again
    I give you all I can extend
    Because I’m played by Scott Glenn

    I’m the most trustworthy of men
    I knew your dad way back when
    But I’ll betray you by the end
    Because I’m played by Scott Glenn

    You never thought I was one of them
    But they paid more cash than I could spend
    So I kidnapped your girlfriend
    Because I’m played by Scott Glenn

    After you shoot me in the end
    I’ll say it wasn’t all pretend
    I wish I could just be your friend
    But I’m played by Scott Glenn

    Anyway, this was never a favorite, but Donald Sutherland’s entire performance is a fucking gem.

    “What do you do to little girls, Ronald?”
    “Burn them.”
    “What do you want to do to the whole world, Ronald?”
    “Burn it…burn it all.”

  5. I am one of those who loves Backdraft… but i get the point of the absurdity of the drama. For me, what saves it are the fire sequences, Hans Zimmer’s music and Kurt. It is one of these ‘guilty pleasure’ movies that makes you accept the flaws… like ‘The Specialist’ – one of the most ridiculous action movie of Stallone, but saved by having James Woods over-acting like a mad man in every scene…

  6. I remember seeing a trailer for this on a VHS when I was about 9, and at the time it seemed to typify everything I wouldn’t like about a movie. But obviously my stance softened on it at some point, because I bought it on a double DVD with DAYLIGHT. However, I didn’t actually watch it until last week when I saw Vern would be reviewing it.

    If I were to guess I would say Widen wrote this as more of a Larry Cohen-esque high concept low-mid budget thriller set in the world of firefighting, but at some point it ended up on Universal’s desk, and they wanted it to have more of a “gee, aren’t these fellas swell?” big budget summer thriller half-way between fluff and Oscar bait feel. The former would probably be more our bag, but turning it into the later led to the billion airings on cable over a 15 year span that earned it a permanent place in pop culture.

    De Niro’s not too taxing but still substantive supporting role that he knocks out of the park is the kind of thing I wish he’d made his bread and butter in the 21st century, rather than the solid pro in anything and everything that hits his desk mode he was stuck in for however long.

    Was surprised to realise this was an R after I watched it. The kind of “we’ll let this be an R as it will mainly appeal to adults” we don’t see too much of these days in favour of “if this is going to be R, make sure there are at least 20 f-bombs and a decapitation so we can make it part of the marketing”.

    The Bruce Hornsby songs rule.

  7. I haven’t watched this since I was a kid, so about the only thing I remember is how cool the fire looked, the way they personified it, and Donald Sutherland’s performance.

    It’s really one of those films that I don’t think they could ever recreate simply because no one is insuring a film that uses that much actual fire.

  8. This is definitely a case of awesome fire set pieces and mediocre story. I think I accepted a lot of it as just movie logic in 1991 but you pointed out a lot of stuff that makes it worse.

    But watching cgi fire movies like Those Who Wish Me Dead only makes me appreciate the real thing even more. Kurt Russell once said nobody’s ever going to make a more difficult movie than Backdraft and I’m sure he’s right. Why would they keep going trying to make the fire do what the script says when they can just paint it in later?

    So this was never a movie I revisited like T2, Hudson Hawk, Bill and Ted, Point Break and a few other 1991 movies but it does stand out in memory as being a major, relevant contribution to summer spectacle.

    Parenthood is way better though.

  9. Maj, I also just realized Scott Glenn played the same character in Firestorm. Is he in a third fire movie where he’s the arsonist for a trifecta?


    Okay, am I the only one who is completely baffled that they in the end decide to keep the identity of the arsonist secret to the public, just to not ruin the memory of all the good stuff he did? Or something like that. Or did I remember something wrong? Because that’s such a bullshit, I must have made this up, right?

  11. I saw this for the first time back in February! Definitely one of those movies that it’s hard to believe everyone at the time just accepted as normal. The script has so many pointless digressions and characters and unrelated plotlines that it feels like it was adapted from a lengthy and beloved novel that they couldn’t bear to pare down.

    Russel is actually playing a kind of pointless role, but here’s a hot take: I think William Baldwin, probably the Baldwin you think least about, is actually kind of good. He has a soft, wounded quality to him that foregrounds the character’s vulnerability and insecurity over having to compete with his ultra-macho brother. It’s not an interesting character or even an especially good performance, but there’s enough there to make it particularly baffling that anyone ever willingly picked up the phone and dialed Stephen Baldwin.

    As a kid, I always linked the hellish poster to famous cinematic burn victim Freddie Krueger. It looked like a horror movie then, and damned if it doesn’t still today. And the poster isn’t lying; for all its tortured plotting, this is not a movie about actors (though it wastes a hell of a lot of tedious time on them); this is a movie about fire, and at least they nail that part. If this was a Hong Kong movie, I would assume half the cast died; as it is, I’m sure no one was in any real danger, but goddam, it sure looks dangerous. There’re only a handful of big huge explosive setpieces, but they have more than enough energy to power the sappy, ungainly story as though it were a genre movie and not a ridiculous melodrama.

    Also: literally nothing sexier than fucking on top of a giant, flaccid firehose.

  12. I hate this movie, but I thank its existence for one thing: the Hans Zimmer music was used as the theme song for the original Japanese version of Iron Chef.

  13. My abiding memory (after at least 20+ years) is that the movie should have been about Robert De Niro’s character as the lead. Sutherland just quietly walked away with the whole thing.

  14. Vern: Funny you mention MANHUNTER, I think one of it’s lines was lifted for use in this. “You’re so sly but so am I”.

    Fred: THE ROCK had a big sequence with fire, and I’m more than sure that one of the shots is a near match to this. Howard said he’d never do a sequel because of the potential hazards he experienced first time around, but Universal recently did a straight-to-video sequel which I’m sure is all CGI fire. THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD is pretty bad in comparison to this in that aspect, but is as otherwise mediocre as this was.

    Mr. M: I like Scott Glenn a whole lot in stuff and would poke holes all over your theory, but your song is quite funny I have to admit.

  15. Ah, you stick-in-the muds need surgery to remove the 10-inch poker currently embedded in your collective asses! BACKDRAFT is wonderful! No fucking problems with this movie, no sir! Caught it twice in theatres, in the same week, watch it every time it’s on TV and my DVD copy gets regular spins every few years.

    And Vern, no disrespect, but WTF dude? What was it about the movie that screamed bargain bin Uwe Boll video game adaptation shot in Croatia using real hookers that put you off this for 3 decades?

    You have Kurt Russell, now a National Treasure, but even then, a solid and dependable Leading Man
    Rebecca DeMornay and Jennifer Jason Leigh at peak hotness
    The lesser Baldwin, but yeah, at his peak hotness
    De Niro in a sterling supporting role
    Sutherland as an Arsonist Lecter
    Scott Glenn, fresh off The Hunt For Red October and The Silence Of The Lambs.
    And bringing the whole ensemble together, the dependable Ron Howard, riding high off Splash, Cocoon and Willow.

    A nice blend of familial drama and action, with top notch pyrotechnic effects and a stellar cast anchoring all of it. All that screamed Ridiculous?

    Ok…deep breath…as Dalton would say….Opinions Vary.

    I freaking love this movie so much I’m afraid to watch the in-name only sequel that apparently came out a few years ago.

  16. Mr. Subtlety, I disagree with everything you said, except your last statement. Only thing sexier than fucking a hot girl atop a fire engine is seeing her bra entangled on one of the hoses.

  17. And those putting THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD on par with BACKDRAFT in terms of both fire effects and plot holes need to watch them both back to back before making such a preposterous statement. I don’t deny BACKDRAFT has plenty of plot holes but nothing approaching the suspension of disbelief forced upon the viewer when a heavily pregnant woman climbs a watch tower in record time and reaches the summit without so much as panting. And Jolie’s near anorexic frame passing any mandatory qualifying Fireman Physical is about as likely as Sutherland’s serial arsonist making parole.

  18. Franchise Fred

    May 25th, 2021 at 8:31 pm

    KayKay, I don’t think anyone is complimentary about Those Who Wish Me Dead’s fake fire. Comparing the plots, your mileage may vary, but the CGI fire definitely looks like shit.

  19. This movie is so dumb. It’s so dumb, it should’ve drowned while holding its head up to watch the rain fall. It’s an encapsulation (a lengthy one, but still) of why I can not stand Ron Howard, the director: He is one heavy-handed SOB. Seriously, every time I’ve seen a movie of his, I could see the beats coming a mile off and predictable, heavy-handed Ron never failed to disappoint. Or rather, he did disappoint by never showing a glimmer of ability to stretch beyond his Hollywood-borne limitations and direct a scene that didn’t feel like it belonged in Any Given Movie: The Motion Picture.

    If any of y’all are up for a great actioner with fantastic pyrotechnics and courageous-yet-human firefighters, go find Ji-hoon Kim’s The Tower. It’s a better movie in every way, except in its lack of Donald Sutherland.

  20. Fred, Glenn did MAN ON FIRE in 1987. Does that count?

  21. Yes! The fire was a metaphor but still.

  22. I’ve had some training in firefighting, and from that perspective BACKDRAFT is utter BS. But then again, most movies with a big fire omits all the smoke and the air that actually catches fire. I guess it would be too real. It’s hard to look like a hero when you’re standing ten meters away holding a hose.

  23. No comment about the “He may have been an arsonist who killed people, but he was one of us, so we won’t tell anybody that it was him” ending?I really dreamed that, didn’t I.

  24. CJ, I think the only two people who know for sure are Kurt Russell and Billy Baldwin and SPOILER ALERT Billy promises Kurt as he (Kurt) lies dying that he won’t reveal the secret so as not to hurt the thing that Kurt dies for (twice if you include Papa Kurt). If you think about it, it makes perfect melodrama sense.

  25. I love this review, Vern, and i don’t really want to argue with it, except that I still think BACKDRAFT is a good movie and a lot of fun. I could see from Twitter that you were struggling with this review, so I rewatched it over the weekend, and I still think it does what I expect of it.

    Yes, Billy Baldwin gets too much time, and way too much time looking like a kicked puppy, and the movie would be better if De Niro’s was the main story, but that would lose a lot of the firefighting, which is what makes the movie really special. Rewatching, I indeed noticed, pretty much for the first time, how weak Jennifer Jason Leigh is, but against that you have Rebecca De Mornay working incredibly hard and making a real performance from some pretty thin material. And you have De Niro and Sutherland. It’s a movie of moments, Kurt coming through the door with the kid under his arm, Sutherland and the burned doll, and yeah, even the bra on the firehose. And you have the fires, which, for all their lack of versimilitude, are the best we’re going to see until CGI gets a lot better than it is currently. And the criticism that real firefighters don’t really believe fire is a living thing is no criticism at all. For suspension of disbelief I don’t have to believe it, I only have to believe that the characters believe it, and I do.

    If there’s a “guilty pleasure” here it really is seeing JT Walsh do his sleazy politician thing, which I salute as masterful.

    As to Hong Kong firefighting movies, I’ve not seen AS THE LIGHT GOES OUT, but Johnnie To’s LIFELINE follows the BACKDRAFT template and has the added bonus of Lam Suet as “Crazy Arsonist”. I’ve no idea how many stuntmen these movies killed.

  26. Okay, saw this one opening weekend, thought it was ABSOLUTELY FUCKING PREPOSTEROUS on just about every level.

    Turns out my father, who worked as a professional firefighter for about 20 years, also saw it that weekend. I couldn’t wait to yuck it up with him, talking about what a fucking howler this thing was…

    He liked it…

    “But Dad… The fucking fire that RUNS AWAY then POUNCES like the fucking Alien???”

    “I’ve seen that happen! Many times!”


    All I can say is that firefighting hasn’t been so romanticized on the big screen, and perhaps that seduced the old man.

  27. I have a friend who’s a firefighter, and I can confirm that he and his brethren treat this movie like a holy relic. I’d imagine they know more than anyone how bullshit it is but it prints the legend and they like that. Everybody likes to see themselves painted as larger than life heroes who are the only ones who know how to save the day. I bet oil drillers get a kick out of ARMAGEDDON too.

  28. Yeah, I just figured after basically a lifetime of going to the movies and seeing his arch-enemy (cops) presented as a superhero (For those who don’t know, cops and firefighters absolutely HATE each other), seeing the shoe on the other foot proved too strong a seduction. But his defense of it’s “realism” proved too large a pill.

  29. I’m here to revel in insane parenting choices I suppose. My father was a Chicago firefighter for 41 years and was one of the greatest. It was claimed that he had saved more fireman’s lives than most firemen has saved civilian lives. Throughout my childhood I visited him at the firehouse and rode along with him to fires big and small, hundreds of times. For the first 8 years of my life his firehouse was a block away from our home. Eventually he was promoted to Chief and assigned to run the busiest firehouse in Chicago (third busiest in the nation). Throughout high school and early university it was tradition for me to go to work with him and sleep at the firehouse, usually on Thanksgiving and after the New Year. He did not give a hoot…I was assigned a jacket, boots, helmet, and rebreather each time. I rode to emergencies with them at all hours, and when the fires were somewhat manageable he’d send me in on a line(firehose) or with an axe to get into the walls where the fire was hiding. What an experience! The only reason this craziness was allowed was because he was a living legend and a real mensch.
    Obviously, Backdraft was a big deal at the time. Ron Howard actually rode along with my pops for a day to get a feel for firefighting, we’ve got pictures and everything. My dad said he was respectful and a total gentleman. My neighbor was a somewhat famous arson investigator and was DeNiro’s personal liason for the whole film, and as far as I know they still talk to this day.
    Anyway, we saw the movie opening weekend and my dad laughed harder than at most comedies. He got a huge kick out of it and thought it was completely ridiculous at the same time. So it was always good for a discussion or a laugh when it appeared on cable throughout the years.

    We lost the old man this past August at the age of 84. Not a bad run for a true smoke-eater.

  30. Franchise Fred

    May 26th, 2021 at 8:35 am

    CJ, you didn’t dream it. I feel like this isn’t the only movie that buries the news of the killer to protect the institution or whatever, but fuck if I can remember other ones right now.

  31. Fred, WATCHMEN I guess. SPOILER Rohrschach dies, actually chooses to die, because he alone can’t swallow the idea that world peace is worth all the murders Ozymandias has committed to achieve it.

  32. THE DARK KNIGHT counts, right? That whole “The hero we need” bullshit?


    At least in WATCHMEN, we’re talking about Veidt preventing a nuclear Armageddon. In BACKDRAFT, the killer is literally assassinating public officials… because they cut his department’s budget. And in the process, he seriously injured at least one of the guys he’s claiming he wants to protect (and that’s assuming you don’t blame him for Kurt Russel’s death). And yet they’re like “Well, but he was a pretty good guy, you know? Let’s just let bygones be bygones.” Just one more super weird thing the script throws at you as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.


  34. I’m enjoying these comments, especially the personal stories – thanks everyone. Darth Brooks, I’m glad to hear that it turned out better than in the movie! Do you look identical to your dad, or is that your brother?

  35. That would be my sister. Looks like my dad wearing a blonde wig!

  36. I’ve never seen Backdraft, but this review is really great. Thanks, Vern.

  37. I love this movie. The story makes little sense but the cast is great and i have a good cry everytime i see Bull’s death and funeral.

  38. Come for the top-shelf review, stay for darth brooks’s comment! Thanks for a couple of great reads, guys.

  39. I remember this one…it’s basically decent enough crap, but crap it is. Great fire stuff, everything else sucks the big one. Baldwin remembering exactly what the guy said so he can repeat it verbatim later is a common trope of shitty hack writers who imagine a bunch of morons in the audience pumping their fists at it. You see that one a LOT. And it was after Silence pf the Lambs so of COURSE there’s a Hannibal Lecter character like 87% of the other disposable thriller garbage studios were making then…but usually at least they were seeing characters who’d actually give some useful info. Here they have to see a guy who likes to set fires to get his amazing insight into fire itself? So, so, so stupid. But I love seeing people set on fire in movies so that was cool. But not better than the ending of Maniac Cop 2.

  40. But this is only a few months after Silence of the Lambs so it had to have been in production before Hannibal Lecter got big, unless they were big Manhunter fans.

  41. Backdraft apparently was in production since 1987, which happens to be one year after…Manhunter!

    Also, in Backdraft when searching for the arsonist, I think it was DeNiro who says “you’re sly but so am I.” Guess what that line is also from?

    Coincidence? Maybe. But not sure I’m inclined to give this dude the benefit of the doubt. It’s like how James Gunn has seen all of the 1980s horror movies except just happens to claim the one he never aw was Night of the Creeps…which he exactly replicated. Maaaaaybe.

  42. Just to give some parenting point/counterpoint to darth brooks, my father NEVER let me go to a fire. Trust me, I asked.

  43. Darth Brooks: That’s awesome. My dad is not as cool as yours– he was a cop, not a firefighter– but he did get to meet Harrison Ford when he was working on Witness. They did not keep in touch.

  44. It’s funny how the Hannibal Lecter mythos has changed throughout the years. Over pandemic I finally watched the TV series Hannibal (and holy shit I cannot believe they were able to air some of those scenes on network TV! Like, seriously, some of the most disturbing murder scenes I’ve ever seen) then I rewatched MANHUNTER and RED DRAGON. I love how in MANHUNTER he’s a crazy serial killer they go talk to, but he’s not this psycho whisperer, he’s just in contact with the guy they’re trying to catch. They go and see him once and they’re able to trick him by searching his cell, which he never realizes. Then in RED DRAGON they go see him at least a couple times and he waxes on about the Tooth Fairy as if he’s psychically connected and he absolutely doesn’t fall for their search of his cell. Then in the TV series he master minds the whole thing pretty much, knowing exactly how the authorities will react and breaks out of prison to hunt down the Tooth Fairy with Will.

  45. Oops, that’s me above. Not sure what happened. At least it just cut off rather than publish my real name. Whew.

  46. I had not seen this since 91. Last weekend I rewatched it. My local theater was second run, so I forgot that this was a summer release. I definitely saw it in the fall. Back when I was 12, I found it bland. Like Vern, I thought this was a beloved picture. I thought my revisit would uncover more depth. It did not. This movie made me cackle with laughter. It can only play as comedy. Your review is spot on. Thank you.

  47. I am so happy to see all the love for Donald Sutherland here. I haven’t seen this movie in 30 years and his performance as the pyromaniac is still burned into my mind. It is truly a great piece of work when he can pull that off in a movie stacked with some serious talent.

  48. Maggie, Thomas Harris himself changed the Lecter mythos in the books when he decided (like a lot of male thriller writers, for reasons sometimes personal and most often commercial) that he wanted a female lead in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. So the tussle of 2 Alphas in RED DRAGON now introduces Sexual Tension, Power Differentials and MENTOR/PROTEGE dynamics into the mix. For that to work, Lecter needed to go from Evil Asshole to Charming Evil Asshole. Lecter got Sexy.

    A pity though, because I always felt Will Graham to be a far more compelling protagonist than Clarice Starling. A better Batman to Lecter’s Joker, sadly reduced to a single sentence in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (the book); ‘A drunk in Florida with a face that was hard to look at’

  49. rainman, when I went to see BACKDRAFT with a friend, and Sutherland appears, we both turned to each other and said, “Shit! Warden Drumgoole, back in prison. That’s not good!”

  50. Except Kay, Lecter fulfills the same basic plot moves for both Red Dragon and Silence…they go to him for help and he gives it…just for different reasons each time. He was still charming in Red Dragon, he has all the same backstory and he wasn’t throwing fancy parties if he was a mook. But of course he was nastier to Will, Will actually caught him which means Lecter was shown up…and that’s one thing his ego won’t take.

  51. “But of course he was nastier to Will, Will actually caught him which means Lecter was shown up…and that’s one thing his ego won’t take.”

    Correct. Plus Lecter had no interest in fucking Will Graham.

  52. “Plus Lecter had no interest in fucking Will Graham.” He definitely wanted to fuck him in the TV show Hannibal.

  53. As I recall from the books there’s no inclination what Lecter thinks sexually of Clarice. For all we know he’s gay or even asexual (being a deviant psycho this could actually work for him). We assume Lecter wants to fuck her because she’s a woman.

  54. Except for the book Hannibal where he


    kidnaps her and brainwashes her into being his lover.

  55. That’s why I hate that kiss at the end of HANNIBAL: THE MOVIE. Yes, please, let’s turn a relationship of intellectional and philosophical seduction into a horndog forcing himself on a defenseless woman. I know, I know—a Ridley Scott sequel that utterly misses the point. What are the odds?

  56. Maggie: Does he brainwash her or does he set her free? I love that the ending of the book is told from an outside perspective, because it leaves that open to interpretation. Regardless of whether she’s become Hannibal’s puppet or his willing partner, one thing is clear: They are terrifying together.

    Also, whether they’re lovers at the end or not, I’d still say sex is the least of what Hannibal wanted from Clarice. That’s why the forced kiss in the movie is so insulting. Hannibal would never do something so crass. He’d kill himself first.

  57. I read it as brainwashing, but can see how it’s open to interpretation. Maybe my visceral repulsion of them being together drives my own take. All I know is I hated it.

  58. I’m not, like, psyched about it. But I think the novel makes a good case that being with Hannibal is a better choice for a woman like Clarice than trying to be part of the patriarchy.

  59. Maggie though, did the book say they were lovers. We have no idea what the relatoinship is becaue it cut away to Barney’s perspective later and we don’t know what’s going on. I tend to think she’s drugged/brainwashed. We don’t know that they’re lovers. Maybe she’s now his padawan learner? Maybe he was using her for cover so he could do the stuff he wanted (go to an opera)?

    Having said that, the ending to the book absolutely sucked ass and felt like Harris missed the mark…like he did with most of the rest of that book but at least until then it was just sort of lame and not a piece of garbage.

  60. Actually…my memory is foggy on this stuff since I read the book like ten years ago…wasn’t he originally trying to brainwash her into thinking she was his sister? After Hannibal I said I’m done reading anymore f this Lecter bullshit, especially a prequel which I couldn’t care less about…but did he have an incestuous relationship with his sister? If so maybe there’s something to that.

  61. It has been about 20 years since I read it, so I think I’ve lost some of the details but I can see that.

  62. My above comment was to Mr. M.

    Muh, in the end of the book after he kept her, drugging her for however long and talking about his childhood, she said she thought that deep down he may have resented his sister displacing him at his mother’s breast, then she pulled her top down, poured champagne on her boob and told him he wouldn’t have to share this one and he took up her offer. Maybe that was a weird non-sexual mommy/sister thing, but I took it as a weird sexual mommy/sister thing.

  63. “Also, whether they’re lovers at the end or not, I’d still say sex is the least of what Hannibal wanted from Clarice”

    This, from HANNIBAL the novel: Sex is a splendid structure they add to everyday

    So, yeah, it may not be the Special Of the Day, but it’s on the menu

  64. “Having said that, the ending to the book absolutely sucked ass and felt like Harris missed the mark…”

    HANNIBAL (the book) was problematic on so many levels, not least it’s Bond-ian villain with the Lesbian Bodybuilder Sister (thankfully excised from the movie) but that ending, which I initially hated as well, was where I believe Harris always wanted it to go. Right about when he swapped out a Male Protagonist for a Female One.

    Have you read Harris’ debut novel BLACK SUNDAY? It’s about a deranged ex Viet Vet teaming up with a female terrorist to bomb the Super Bowl. They eventually get sexual as well in a sort of co-dependent relationship even as they are plotting to annihilate a stadium full of civilians. Methinks Harris likes exploring these perverse dynamics.

  65. “Yes, please, let’s turn a relationship of intellectional and philosophical seduction into a horndog forcing himself on a defenseless woman”

    From a mainstream film perspective, that would have been more palatable then depicting a strong, resourceful and intelligent woman succumbing to the charms of a serial killer and doing a moonlight waltz with him atop a palazzo balcony. I read someplace, Jodie Foster’s utter disgust for that ending is why she didn’t reprise the role.

    “But I think the novel makes a good case that being with Hannibal is a better choice for a woman like Clarice than trying to be part of the patriarchy.”

    This was PRECISELY the point Harris was making.

  66. “He definitely wanted to fuck him in the TV show Hannibal”

    Damn! You’ve given me another reason to check the show out!

  67. I always thought the point of Hannibal the novel was that it was a classic hero story where our hero Hannibal stops the bad guy and gets the girl… except it’s all fucked up because Hannibal is a psychopath.

  68. Well I just came to say that I just found out this review existed over a year later, and even though Vern’s takedowns of every ridiculous aspect of this film are absolutely 100% spot on and cannot be credibly debated…this is still one of my favorite films of the decade and one I’ve revisited many times since first seeing it in ‘91.

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