"You Go, We Go": Ron Howard's Backdraft (1991)
Brotherhood in a firehouse and the demons that threaten to shatter it. Backdraft is a masterclass in practical FX work, laced with a whodunnit that has aged very well. For my money, it is the best work Ron Howard has ever produced. Romantic at times but always grounded, Backdraft gives us a serious Ron Howard film that gets dangerous while never losing what it sets out to accomplish. I always like to remind people that this was his follow up to Parenthood. Talk about comparing apples to cars - two completely different worlds, yet Howard pulls off both with ease.
Steve McCaffrey, played to the bone by the always reliable Kurt Russell, is a veteran firefighter who takes his job very damn seriously. His father was a firefighter, and after watching him die (also played by Kurt Russell in a mustache, because why not) on a job gone wrong, the firefighter life was something he needed to be the greatest at to honor him. Being the best means no room for pleasantries, so when his lackadaisical brother Brian (William Baldwin) gets a job in the same firehouse, of course, there will be tension.
Besides the brothers butting heads, there is a string of arsons happening all over town, all of which are designed to do a backdraft, which is to say fire trapped in a room only to explode out with extreme force. Who could possibly be doing this and why are all clues leading to the firehouse? Could Kurt Russell be taking his job too seriously or is it another sicko trying to blame the firehouse? The unfurling mystery plays out so well, with arson investigator Donald Rimgale on the case (a stoic Robert De Niro), closing in on the perpetrator ever so slowly and with such poise. Ron Howard does a couple of misdirects that totally work on first-time viewers, and for those like myself that have seen it several times the story still works its magic and is still quite captivating.
Now when I say Backdraft is an FX masterclass, I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Released in 1991, the practical fire FX throughout this film can still blow you away. Cameramen wore fireproof suits and gel to get close to the fire as possible, with the handheld units often running into the fire. The entire frame is often filled with flames, and actors are there on set just running around saving the day. Couple this with amazing melodrama, jokes (the firefighter lighting a cigarette in a burnt out building will always be hilarious) and again that wonderful murder mystery, and you have a complete winner.
Some of the performances in this film are worthy of not but I need to focus on two in particular. JT Walsh, the quintessential character actor plays a complete slimeball political jerk and you love to hate his guts. A complete opportunist, in a stare alone you can see his malicious intent and it's a joy to witness. Walsh (may he rest in peace) was always on point and Backdraft is one of many examples where he does not disappoint. The other performance of note is veteran Donald Sutherland playing the insane pyromaniac Ronald Bartel. Bartel is locked up for killing people with his pyro ways. He has AMAZING lines with an even better delivery. "The funny thing about firemen: night and day they're always firemen." During a parole hearing, De Niro asks him a series of simple questions and his answers still unnerve me to this day. The final questions being: "What about the world, Roland? What would you like to do with the whole world?" Sutherland looks at him dead serious, then a glow comes over him and he answers "Burn it all." Then he laughs as if to say "you knew I'd say that silly guy, so why ask?" At a parole hearing! A standout role that barely has 6 minutes of screen time, yet it is so haunting. These two performances solidify the film, making it extremely sturdy.
This was a staple for me growing up as a kid hauling video stores. I have seen it several times growing up. Recently, I saw a Kurt Russell film marathon and one of the films was Backdraft in 35mm. To say that it holds up is cutting it short. Yes, it is a solid piece of entertainment that will stand the test of time, but it is very important to the filmography of Ron Howard. As much as I love Night Shift, Gung Ho, Cocoon, and Willow, it is Backdraft that made the world realize Ron can make any kind of film and land on his feet. He was on a roll, then Backdraft showed everyone the train is not stopping any time soon. How can you forget a film that has Kurt Russell running through fire clutching a 5-year-old boy saving his life?