Heroic Fire Fighting for Russell and Baldwin
Having finally settled on a career as a fireman, after spending years in one dead end job after another, Brian McCaffrey finds himself being posted to a fire station in the heart of Chicago's Chinatown, where his older brother, Stephen, is one of the head fireman. Opposed to his younger brother risking his life in a profession that killed their father when they were still children, Stephen does everything to make life hard for his younger sibling. After loosing his nerve whilst fighting a fire, Brian swaps his job to go and work for the fire inspector, Donald Rimgale, who is investigating a recent batch of mysterious fires. With the aid of Brian, Donald believes the fires are the work of an expert due to the precise nature of the way they burn and their effectiveness at killing their desired target and maybe there is a political influence behind them.
I had completely forgotten about "Backdraft" until I was recently going through a box of my old films and thought I would see if after 15 years, since its release back in 1991, whether it had lost any of its charm. To be honest, it was still as entertaining and thrilling as I remember it all those years back, if not better. The whole package of story, mystery, action, special effects and acting is so good I cannot deny that I would rate this as one of my top 20 films of all time.
"Backdraft" has three threads which build up the whole story, with the initial one focussing on the rivalry between the McCaffrey brothers. Straight from the start we are given the history to their rivalry, as we learn that when Brian was a child, he witnessed the death of his father whilst tackling a fire and a picture of him clutching his father's charred helmet appeared on the cover of "Life" magazine. Although there is certainly plenty of rivalry between them as each one tries to be more heroic than the other, in affect this is more about Stephen's love for his younger brother, Brian, and not wanting him to loose his life like their father.
The second thread focuses on the relationships between the McCaffrey brothers and their prospective partners. Stephen, although married with a child, lives a bachelor life on his father's old boat. Although he is still totally in love with his wife, and she likewise with him, she is unable to live with the fear that one day he would never come home, plus he is so dedicated to his work that she always feels she is playing second fiddle. Whilst Brian is trying to rekindle a romance with a former girlfriend, from years gone past, which ended when he cleared off with out any notice. The big problem is, his girlfriend works for a politician who is running for mayor, with part of his manifesto being to cut the fire service budgets.
The third and final thread, and in reality what the film is all about, is the mysterious fires which are under investigation by the fire inspector. Although the story does make a lot of presumptions, it never dwells on deep information, which would have slowed the film down. The greatest part of this thread is that it is a thriller with several twists, which I must admit, lead me down a few wrong paths when I first watched it.
Thankfully the three threads work brilliantly together as every scene is packed with relevant information relating to at least one of them. On top of this, there are several minor threads, which although not entirely relevant to the overall story, add great depth to the film.
The main focus of the film is Stephen McCaffrey, played by Kurt Russell, and his younger brother Brian, played by William Baldwin. In all fairness I am a huge fan of Kurt Russell and it would be very hard for him to put a foot wrong, but even with my slightly biased opinion, I feel that Russell was brilliant as playing Stephen McCaffrey. The character is basically a macho, hero, well respected by his fellow fireman as he puts their safety first and Russell really excels as not only get to show off his macho side, but also a deeper, more caring side, especially towards his younger brother. On the other hand we have William Baldwin as Brian, the younger brother and to be honest I have never rated him as much of an actor. Even though his performance is good and he fits the slightly weedy character perfectly, he never captures the screen as well as Russell.
Of course the film can't just survive off of two characters and thankfully there are plenty of other characters, played by some pretty big Hollywood names, which fill up the screen with sub stories revolving round them. The most prominent of these other characters are the fire inspector, Donald Rimgale, played by Robert De Niro, Jennifer Vaitkus , Brian's girlfriend, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Helen McCaffrey, Stephen's estranged wife, played by Rebecca De Mornay and Alderman Marty Swayzak, played by J.T. Walsh. On top of these you also get Donald Sutherland and Scott Glenn who also play characters of equal importance, but with less screen time.
One of the best things about "Backdraft" is the characters, especially for a bloke as it allows you to get in touch with your childhood fantasy of being the big hero, who saves peoples lives. But this is not the only aspect of what makes the characters so good, it is the fact that you get plenty of depth to the main characters, allowing you to appreciate why they do and say things.
Directed by Ron Howard, "Backdraft" could have easily become too one sided with the emphasis being on either the action side or thriller side of the story, but Howard has done a first rate job of keeping the balance just right, intermingling both aspects through out the movie. If you take the thriller part of the story, Howard slowly builds this up through out the film with clues being dropped everywhere, of course some of them do lead you up the wrong path as you start to doubt who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Like with any good thriller, the story builds up to a very good climax full of angst and emotion. The action side of the film is truly amazing as you watch what appear to be Hollywood stars risking their own necks amongst the burning ruins of buildings. Whether this is the case or whether it is some amazing technical trickery, it really does grab your attention and still looks as amazing as it did the first time I watched it. If this wasn't enough, the way Howard builds up the emotional side of the film is as good as anything else and I have to admit that the footage which is played as the credits appear is so moving.
The soundtrack really finishes off "Backdraft" to perfection with numerous pieces being composed by Hans Zimmer as well as Bruce Hornsby. Although there are numerous songs in the movie such as "War" by Edwin Starr and "Heat Wave" by Martha and the Vandellas, the musical star is definitely the orchestral pieces. These not only set the tempo for each scene but lead you on a journey of adventure and emotion.
Even though "Backdraft" is now more than a decade old, it is still as entertaining and thrilling as I remember it from all those years ago. It has definitely not become dated and compared to some modern movies; I would say it is significantly better. This is mainly down to the terrific balance of drama, suspense and action all tied up nicely with just enough romance and emotion to give you a first class movie. Even though it does star one of those Baldwin brothers, I cannot fault the casting or any of the performances and even though I am biased, I can honestly say that this has to be one of Kurt Russell's best movies. In attempting to try and find a fault with the movie I cannot find any, even Ron Howard's direction is spot on and the accompanying soundtrack is one of the best I have ever come across.
This of course may not be a film to everyone's liking but with such a wide range of genre's which it covers, and there is also some humour in there, just for good measure, I would imagine that this would have a wide appeal.