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Home » Culture and Criticism

The Crushed Film Festival presents: Backdraft

Submitted by on December 29, 2010 – 12:41 AM16 Comments

The Movie: Backdraft

The Crush Object: Kurt Russell

The Story: The Netflix plot summary pretty much covers it: "[Firefighter] brothers Brian and Stephen McCaffrey (William Baldwin and Kurt Russell) are battling each other over past slights while trying to stop an arsonist with a diabolical agenda from torching Chicago."

"Diabolical" isn't the right word; it's more of a banality-of-evil thing, really, as said agenda comes down to budget cuts aimed at getting a sleazy alderman (JT Walsh) (obviously) (…I miss that guy) elected mayor, which will force firehouses to close. Other subplots include the attempts of both brothers to right romantic wrongs, and the overwrought backstory of the arson investigator (Robert De Niro) who helps Brian come into his own.

Backdraft turns 20 in 2011, and it's still a sight to behold. The special effects hold up, and most of the main cast did their own stunts; I've seen the movie a number of times, and the climactic scene in the chemical factory remains a legit nail-biter. The writing, unfortunately, is an unnecessarily convoluted mess. The screenwriter's c.v. consists of this and about 176 Highlander satellites, which might explain, but does not excuse, the mangling of a final-scene callback that didn't have much punch to begin with. (Nothing really explains the casting of Jennifer Jason Leigh as a municipal-government flunky with a dye job that rivals the rootfest she sported in Short Cuts.)

But it's a Ron Howard movie, and Ron Howard isn't going for the quiet moments or the subtle shading. For the most part, he's about straight-ahead, middlebrow, well-built entertainments, which he is capable of doing as well as anybody in the business. I just watched Apollo 13 the other day while wrapping Christmas presents. I've probably watched that damn thing 143 times already, but Hanks's voice came over the PA at NASA after the re-entry blackout and I teared up again.

Backdraft works on the same level, or close to it, and whether or not his work is your thing (and it isn't mine, with maybe two exceptions), Howard consistently gets above-average performances from his ensembles, such that you almost don't notice the gloppy dialogue. Here, it's De Niro who gets the biggest servings of day-old pudding, but he peels back the crust of ick and digs right in all, "Sure, you 'have to love fire,' why not, let's get this done."

Russell, asked to play a macho paradigm so emotionally impacted that he's on the verge of a stroke, also does well giving Stephen dimensions — so it's frustrating that his best scenes come against actors who can't match him. The face-off against Adcox is the real shame; usually, I really like Scott Glenn, but the minute he's revealed as the secondary baddie, he goes into silent-movie-hysteria mode with the beetled brows and the stiff-legged walking and the Joker faces, and his accent is whistling around the Midwest and Texas like a bottle rocket. Granted, he has to yell about 61 variations on the line, "THEY WERE KILLING FIREMEN FOR MONAAAAYYY," but it's not his best outing. Russell just works it out. He does the same in his death scene, which on paper is garbage but which Russell really sells…but then Howard keeps cutting back to Baldwin, who's wearing his customary "I ate a bug" expression.

So, it's not all that great, the movie, but somehow, it works. The soundtrack is utterly manipulative (and heavy on the Bruce Hornsby), Rebecca DeMornay is underused, there's too much slo-mo, and the combative competition between the brothers doesn't ring true if Stephen in fact raised Brian — but then Howard puts together a nice shiny fireman's funeral and you sob into a Kleenex, enjoy the denouement of justice, and go about your day unburdened by the witnessing of any artistry.

The Backstory: I've had a thing for Kurt Russell since Overboard. Yes, "with the overalls and the mullet and whatnot" — go watch it again. You see the shoulders on that guy? You still want to judge me?

That's what I thought.

Actually, everyone looks pretty good in Backdraft — Russell, Baldwin, Jason Gedrick's dupa (why do Baldwin/Gedrick pairings keep popping up in the CFF? different Baldwin this time, but still), Scott Glenn in a towel…even De Niro is working it out with the tously hair and the uniform, and I haven't thought that guy was a fox since Godfather II.

But really it's all about Russell, who spends much of the movie in white t-shirts and jeans — or glaring, in close-up, the better for us to enjoy those pretty pretty eyes.

The Embarrassment Level: The initial crush object is not that embarrassing; the "Scott Glenn in a towel" comment is probably going to cause some problems. Two and a half.

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16 Comments »

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Kurt Russell never did it for me crush wise–I have no idea why, since the dude is fine, has kept in shape, has a sense of humor, and been with Goldie Hawn for like 900 years. Just the chemistry, I guess. I do like watching him perform, though, and the hammier the role, the better, because KR's ability to underplay ham and get to the meaty goodness is, I think, practically unique in Hollywood.

    Take his famous role as Snake Plisskin. I mean, first of all, the guy walks onto the screen playing a guy named SNAKE PLISSKIN. And he takes it, along with all ensuing hijinkery, with the perfect amount of seriousness. Not too dour or "I refuse to acknowledge your japery, you sassy-pants script", but not too cheesily nudge-nudge wink-wink don't-worry-I-know-this-is-stupid either. You can't play camp by projecting your knowledge/contempt for the quality of the product or you wind up insulting the audience. Kurt never makes the audience feel stupid for paying to see his work.

    Well, hell, maybe I do crush the guy a bit, that was practically a mash note.

  • Michael says:

    "Rebecca DeMornay is underused" is a clause that has never been previously rendered in English.

  • Jaybird says:

    @Michael: BA HA HA HA!

    As someone who's ALWAYS had a thing for men in uniform, I have to admit to crushing on KR in this one, back in the day, because: Firefighter.

  • attica says:

    Any time you find yourself with a few idle seconds and a google search, check out photos of the real Wyatt Earp and compare to KR's visage in Tombstone. "I'm comin' t'gitcha and hell's comin' with me!" is not only a truly great movie line, it is an actual thing Earp said! (Or, you know, what the penny press at the time reported him saying, which, you know, maybe not.)

  • Stephanie says:

    Sorry, attica, I spend my Google Image time searching firefighters. That's the only reason for me to enjoy this movie – smokey firefighters.

  • Schlinkaboo says:

    I'm with Stephanie…hmmm, firefighters…. In fact a beau was one of the firefighter extras for Backdraft. Or so he said, but it worked…..

  • Katie says:

    Omg, Overboard. Most underrated 80s movie ever. I seriously love that movie.

  • Caitilin_o says:

    Best movie fun ever? Watch this with my firefighter dad. "What the HELL… Who the hell opens a door when… those idiots! They would know better than to… wait, they don't even have apparatus and they're walking into THAT room… well, there are a few leather-lungers in New York. BLOOSH! Yeah, heat, flame, flammable liquids, bad combination there." And so forth.

    Good times!

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Caitilin_o, that's my doctor dad watching any medical show on TV: "The HELL? Who the hell orders *gobbledygook med procedure* for a *blahbliddyblah medical condition*?! They're lucky they don't get SUED!" and on and on. It's cute.

  • Sandman says:

    Omg, Overboard. Most underrated 80s movie ever. I seriously love that movie.

    Seriously! "I don't know who I am, but I'm SURE I have a lawyer!" Love.

  • GracieGirl says:

    Yeah, the manipulation factor's pretty high on this one, but damned if that funeral scene doesn't get me every. damn. time.

    And Mr. Sutherland's performance of the jailed firebug is quite creepy. "Burn it all."

  • MaryAnne says:

    Omg, Overboard. Most underrated 80s movie ever. I seriously love that movie.
    Seriously! "I don't know who I am, but I'm SURE I have a lawyer!" Love.

    Right there with you – just total and utter adoration of The Hawn's complete and utter bitchiness. And let's not forget Katherine Helmond's over-the-top wardrobe and interior design … fabulous!

  • Heather C. says:

    I fell in love with Kurt Russell when I saw Big Trouble in Little China. I haven't seen it in who knows how long, but I KNOW I love that movie, and I KNOW I love KR.

    But as much as I love Tombstone and Russell as Wyatt Earp, that movie is all about a svelte Val Kilmer. I will always be his huckleberry.

  • Josh says:

    Watch Big Trouble in Little China with the commentary turned on if you dig The Russell. He's hilarious.

    I have a lot of respect for Russell and his willingness to commit to the material, even if it is little more than overcooked ham with a massive slab of cheese. Because he usually makes it work, and good actors can sell crap lines when they commit to it.

  • Sara says:

    Gawd, I didn't see this post til today, but it's filled with things that made me squeal, "Me tooooo!" I've seen Overboard about 800 times, and it never gets old. "I just… ate a bug!" So awesome.

    I wasnt' allowed to watch Backdraft when it came out, so my friends described for me in detail the sex on a firetruck scene. Ahh, being 10 years old and curious. When I finally saw the movie, I remember being underwhelmed. Heh.

    Also, Sars, I'm so glad I'm not the only one who STILL tears up in Apollo 13. Every. Time.

  • Kat from Jersey says:

    I LOVE Apollo 13. Give me a great ensemble cast full of "Hey, It's That Guy(s)," (whatever happened to Loren Dean, anyway? He was yummy even with those horrible 60's glasses on), an almost insurmountable problem, and a bit of patriotism, and I get all mushy!

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