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Backdraft

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    Mark Tolch
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  • Backdraft

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    Released By: Universal
    Released On: 01/04/2011
    Director: Ron Howard
    Cast: Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Robert DeNiro

    The Film:

    Ron Howard films are my cinematic kryptonite. The overwhelming need to see anything that he does can only be described as an unhealthy obsessive-compulsive trait, the seed planted the moment that I happen upon the trailer for his next blockbuster movie. Such was the case with 1991's Backdraft, a film that promised a look into the gritty and harrowing lifestyles of the Chicago Fire Department. Upon initial viewing, it delivers in spades, with explosions, stunts, a sweeping, epic score, and a rock-solid cast doing a rock-solid job. But when more closely examined, the cracks in the faí§ade are revealed.

    Backdraft follows Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin) who has recently joined the Chicago Fire Department after a string of failed employment and business ventures. Despite his best efforts, he is placed at the same firehouse as his brother, Steven “Bull” McCaffrey (Kurt Russell). Tensions run high between the two, with Bull as the responsible yet gung-ho firefighter following in their dead father's footsteps, and Brian lacking the drive to stay the course, despite having been witness to his father's job-related death when he was a child. In order to escape the wrath of his brother and get closer to past girlfriend Jennifer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Brian takes a job with City Alderman Marty Swayzak's (J.T. Walsh) office, assisting “Shadow” Rimgale (Robert DeNiro) with a recent string of deaths that may be the work of a serial arsonist.

    That is the plot in a nutshell, and Backdraft has some very well-done elements that should make it a winner. Kurt Russell seems to be channelling his Big Trouble In Little China hero Jack Burton for most of the film, which is never a bad thing. Robert DeNiro is excellent in his role as the arson investigator, and J.T. Walsh turns in a great performance as well. Donald Sutherland is hardly onscreen at all, but his performance is one of the best in the film. The special effects and stunts are nothing to scoff at, and the backdraft itself should get equal billing with Russell. So where does it all go wrong?

    “…I gain no deeper knowledge of myself; no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.” Patrick Bateman's self-analysis at the end of American Psycho could have been written to describe this film. Though Howard's introduction at the beginning of the film talks of the firefighter-like camaraderie that the crew developed, and the positive notice that the film received from real-life firefighters, Backdraft pretends to be something aggressive and edgy, but lacks real substance. A fire truck barrels down the street with “Heatwave” by Martha and the Vandellas blasting on the soundtrack and arrives at the fire. Cue the cliché panic of, “My stuff! All my stuff is up there!” (in subsequent fires, we also get, “My baby! My baby is up there!”) as the firefighters burst into the inferno….but wait. Kurt Russell, despite being on the fourth floor of a building in the middle of a raging fire, doesn't need an oxygen mask. Everyone else in his crew have oxygen masks on except for Kurt. As a matter of fact, despite intense heat, he doesn't need his coat done up to protect him from the flames. This is a real look at firefighting? Charging in, they rescue everyone that needs to be rescued, and that's that. Much as in Howard's film Ransom, there was never any real danger; not any that matters, anyhow. Once the viewer realizes this, the film becomes laughable, a series of, “Hm. Okay.” moments. Even Hans Zimmer's score is easily ridiculed, with sweeping, epic passages signifying the triumphs of the characters, like being able to drink from a high-pressure fire hose without having your face torn off, and low, sinister pieces to emphasize terror and danger. And after two plus hours, Backdraft seeks to placate us by bringing us full circle with one of the most ridiculous action scenes committed to film.

    Full of action and solid performances, Backdraft succeeds as a fluff piece, similar to Top Gun in many ways. Unfortunately, instead of having fun with it as an action film, it's presented as a slice of dramatic reality….and it falls flat as such.

    Video/Audio/Extras:


    Backdraft looks fantastic on blu. The 1080p transfer has a good deal of grain without being overwhelming, and is sharp and well balanced for a 20 year-old film. There are no obvious examples of artefacts or compression problems, and it just looks….great. It looks so good, you'll be able to see the cracks in Jennifer Jason Leigh's makeup foundation. The 5.1 lossless Master Audio track is also very well-done, with distinct separation and solid dynamic range. Dialogue and sound effects are well-balanced. Some of the score becomes a bit confused here and there throughout the film, possibly because of some strange delays in the rear speakers, but for the most part, it is spot-on.

    Backdraft also comes with a number of the extras that came with the previous DVD. The aforementioned Ron Howard introduction is available for viewing separately for some reason, though the option to watch the film without it is not given.

    Next up are a whopping 43 minutes of deleted scenes, which build on establishing the story prior to Brian's arrival at the firehouse, and also some character development. Some of the scenes are well worth watching, and one can guess that they were only cut to chop the running time down.

    Igniting The Story is a fifteen minute piece which interview the Imagine Entertainment team of Howard and Grazer, as well writer Gregory Widen as they discuss the heroism of firefighters, the inspiration behind the screenplay, using fire as a character in the film, and the shooting locations. Hans Zimmer is also interviewed on the score of the film, and there's some discussion on the response of firefighters to the film.

    Bringing Together The Team (19:00) talks with the casting director about how the actors were selected for the roles, and also interviews the major players in the film about working with the subject material, and using real firefighters as actors. It's interesting to note that Alec Baldwin was originally approached to play Brian, and Jason Gedrick talks about working with DeNiro.

    Creating The Villain : The Fire (12:00) is one of the better supplements, interviewing the special effects team on how they created all of the fires and how they used different techniques to bring life to the “bad guy”. They also discuss the necessity of fireproofing the equipment, and some of the technical aspects around the lighting.

    The Explosive Stunts (15:00) explores the stunt work done on the film, and how the actors were willing to do most of the stunts themselves, resulting in stunt credits for Russell, Baldwin, and Scott Glen.

    Real-Life Firemen, Real-Life Stories (9:00) interviews firefighters who were inspired to become firefighters because of the film, or have stories relating to similar events portrayed in the film. One can guess that drinking from the fire hose is not one of these stories.

    Rounding out the extra features are two trailers for Backdraft, and a Scene Companion, which is a picture-in-picture feature that runs with the film, explaining aspects of certain scenes.

    The Final Word:

    Well-regarded, Backdraft is definitely worth seeing, and Universal has done a fantastic job with this release. However, it's assertion that it mirrors reality should not be taken too seriously.
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