The Crushed Film Festival presents: Backdraft
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.
Tags: Billy Baldwin Bruce Hornsby (and "The Range"...WTF?) Jason Gedrick Jennifer Jason Leigh JT Walsh Kurt Russell movies Rebecca DeMornay Robert De Niro Ron Howard Scott Glenn The Crushed Film Festival Tom Hanks