Backdraft (1991)
February 8, 2024 6:28 PM - Subscribe

Two Chicago firefighter brothers, who don't get along, have to work together while a dangerous arsonist is on the loose.

Chicago firefighting brothers Stephen (Kurt Russell) and Brian (William Baldwin) have been rivals since childhood. Brian, struggling to prove himself, transfers to the arson unit. There he aids Don (Robert De Niro) in his investigation into a spate of fires involving oxygen-induced infernos called backdrafts. But when a conspiracy implicating a crooked politician and an arsonist leads Brian back to Stephen, he is forced to overcome his brotherly competitiveness in order to crack the case.

Angie Errigo:

There’s even a nod to Hannibal Lecter in Donald Sutherland’s cameo as a crazed, incarcerated arsonist to whom the good guys turn for tips on how to catch their current firestarter. All this, however, is just kindling for the main attraction, which is fire. According to De Niro’s sage “The only way to kill fire is to love it a little”, and Howard’s love affair with the element here is delirious: an ominous musical theme greets every lick of flame until fire becomes as sentient and exciting an adversary as the shark in Jaws; choking actors clutch tiny children and stagger manfully in slow motion through sensationally rendered conflagrations; fire hoses assume the role of laser guns in thrilling action set pieces.

Dramatically, of course, it's utter twaddle, but with state-of-the-art incendiary special effects and a sex scene on top of a fire engine, there's plenty of bang for your buck.

Julie Salamon: Ronald comes up with the film's most intriguing idea, the notion of fire as "the animal," a creature you have to love a little to conquer. That's an interesting twist on the notion that cops and criminals are alter egos. But the filmmakers simply remark on the bond between fire fighters and flame, then move on. De Niro and Sutherland aren't wasted, exactly - the give the picture some definition - but their story is so disconnected to the main story of the brothes that both plotlines come off as distractions.

And maybe that's how it should be, since it is the film's fire fighting sequences, not its story, that are undeniably exciting. Cinematographer Mikael Salomon has filmed special effects before . . the uncontrollable bursts of fire that seem to come from nowhere are terrifying = thought Salomon has a tendency to diminish the terror by making everything so beautiful.

Richard Roeper: Ron Howard’s admittedly sentimental and sometimes bloated love letter to the heroes who run into burning buildings traffics heavily in cliches about Chicago firefighters and in particular those of Irish-American descent, and the melodrama often gets soapy — but every time there’s a fire in a warehouse or an apartment building or an old auditorium or a private home, we can practically feel the heat and smell the smoke as the flames lick the walls and roar all around. Some 30 years after its initial release and with a theatrical re-release right around the corner, “Backdraft” still packs a wallop — and it’s a great showcase for the city of Chicago in all its industrial, gritty, neighborhood glory.

posted by Carillon (8 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
hat tip to DirtyOldTown for this one

What I do remember about this film really is the fire and action. Also that the ending makes me mad with the whole coverup aspect. But the fire is so viscerally alive, it really does feel like a separate character.
posted by Carillon at 6:31 PM on February 8 [5 favorites]

There's one moment I remember very clearly from this - Donald Sutherland talking to one of the firemen, and at some point in the interview he excitedly asks the fireman, "did the fire look at you?" And then after a beat, he gasps with this awestruck excited look, like a six-year-old who's just learned he's about to meet Batman.

My reaction was a dead even split between "Donald Sutherland is fucking amazing" and "Donald Sutherland is fucking TERRIFYING ".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:43 PM on February 8 [6 favorites]

Haven’t seen the movie in a long while, but it features one of the best Hans Zimmer scores of his early career. Just great marches and effective creepy sounds for the fire itself. Always has been one of my faves.
posted by dellsolace at 7:37 AM on February 9

I, too, have that clip of Donald Sutherland stuck in my mind years later. It, along with the hookup-atop-a-firetruck scene and all the creepily-alive fire footage, are really all I remember from the entire movie.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:21 AM on February 9

This was one of my favorite films of Alec Baldwin before he looked like Alec Baldwin, but bring in Kurt Russell and the rest of this all-star cast and WHAM, best fire fighter movie of all time (I am not a fire fighter so professional opinions may differ). I have "If you go, I go," burned into my mind when I think of this film. It helps that the motivations of the killer put him into that morally gray area, "They're killing fire fighters for money!"

As dellsolace said, killer score just pumps the film up next level for enjoyment. Whenever I think of Ladder 49, I always just think, "It's no Back Draft."

I went and saw the Back Draft fire show at Universal (I think?). It, too, was a fun time.
posted by Atreides at 11:13 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

I think it's his brother, William, not Alec in this one..
posted by Carillon at 7:25 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Haven’t seen the movie in a long while, but it features one of the best Hans Zimmer scores of his early career. Just great marches and effective creepy sounds for the fire itself.

The main theme was used as the intro music for the original Iron Chef, which leads to some interesting associations in both directions.
posted by zamboni at 1:56 PM on February 10

I think it's his brother, William, not Alec in this one..

That would explain the lack of similarity.
posted by Atreides at 1:54 PM on February 15

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