Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Retro Review: Backdraft (1991)

Cast: Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, JT Walsh
Genre: Drama-Thriller
Worldwide Box Office Gross: over $150 million 

Plot: Chicago fire-fighting brothers Stephen and Brian have been rivals since childhood. Brian, struggling to prove himself, transfers to the arson unit. There he aids Don 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

'Soap-Opera Antics and Unimaginative - Yet Stale Narrative & Direction Marred What Could Have Potentially Been A Great Firefighting-based drama'

Backdraft is a film that centres on the lives of two brothers who are both rival firefighters: their late father was a firefighter as well and in Brian and Stephen they are following in their dad's footsteps. But where things differ between them is their attitudes and the way they go about their job: Stephen is the more experienced fireman and pro-active person, who likes to deal with situations head-on, whilst younger brother, Brian is a recent graduate who wishes to come out of his brother's shadow. Besides the family main plot, there is also a subplot where a mysterious arsonist is setting fires, otherwise known as 'backdrafts', to various buildings and Stephen and Brian have to figure out the culprit responsible for these chain of events. 

But for the potential plot, Backdraft falters when there are too many subplots, in addition to a stale and unimaginative narrative and direction that splutters and stumbles its way towards the end. Ron Howard also overdoes it with the melodrama, with some of it unnecessary in certain scenes. 

The film's best moments are the fire/arson based scenes, which are staged and choreographed with attentiveness and an intensity and ferocity that lights up the screen. It's both breathtaking and jaw-dropping to watch. The dramatic climax is worth seeing alone. Literately. Yet this is not enough to salvage the mundane storyline involving the brothers penned by Gregory Widen, which seemingly drags and becomes more overbearing as the film goes on. 

The direction from Ron Howard lacks clarity and is nothing much to shout about, with a story and script being very cliched and his efforts ultimately fail to engage viewers. It was in many respects predictable. The handling of the characters relationships gets messy; Rebecca De Mornay and Jennifer Jason Leigh were wasted in their roles. They didn't make the type of impact that they had in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and Rush: both of which came also out in 1991. Had it not been for the special effects, Backdraft would be a pretty dismal film by all accounts and plus, it is a film that hasn't really aged well. 

The problem here is that Ron Howard (who is best known as Richie in the sitcom, Happy Days) tried to make the arson and fire scenes the main centrepiece and spectacle - as visually effective as they looked - that he has forgotten how to properly utilise the main cast of actors and make a meaningful and enticing film with them. For one hugely explosive arson scene or a scene where the brothers get into an argument, there comes a boring scene after that. It should have made Kurt Russell's character the central character and to build the story around him, rather than to build it around William Baldwin's character. Baldwin's performance itself didn't do enough to impress me and in this film, he was miscast as the younger brother. The feuding brothers' additional arc got tired, fast also. Robert De Niro as Don doesn't have much to do with this one, but he does have a few scenes, and they are good ones too. Jennifer Jason Leigh was not bad actually, and her performance made Backdraft kind of watchable, though her role should've had more potency on the main plot. Additionally, Donald Sutherland as the arsonist, Ronald was creepy.

Howard's direction may have fared considerably better in Splash, Parenthood, Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. And yet, I've never really been a staunch follower of his films. One reason for that is his direction doesn't excite or entertain me as much as it should do. He is one of those directors who goes out of his way to make the viewer become more emotionally engrossed - yet most of it is sort of cookie-cutter-ish, one-dimensional and flat. He has a very pedestrian, yet reliable take on films, even ones that have supposedly action-driven plots, that this becomes so overwhelming it can throw some people off. And at best, his efforts are overly decent. But that's just me speaking. Also, the film's score by Hans Zimmer is an irritation; some scenes didn't need it playing seemingly in the background. 

Then, in this film, you have all of these other character subplots floating around that develop and there is too much of that going on in one film that it becomes so cluttered and messy, as well as it should've been way more gritty and less melodramatic that Backdraft comes off in rendering a daytime soap opera. Backdraft would have been way more effective and better as a film had it operated as a thriller, as opposed to a drama. Yet under Ron Howard's direction, he played it too safe when it should have been way more explosive. Like the arson scenes themselves. 

Though the film heats up during the last half hour, it felt that it took too long for the film to get really interesting and watchable, that most of the first half were a long drab and tedious slog to get to the end of it.

This film, with a premise as intriguing as it sounds, shouldn't have been as dreary as it was with the story, but unfortunately, it turned out to be this way. 

Final Verdict:

At over 2 hours long, this drama is overlong, overdrawn and for all of the impressive and high-quality arson and fire scenes, the rest of the film doesn't and can't live up to that quality that it doesn't help matters when it is bogged down with boring and dreary melodrama that belongs in a soap opera, and not so much with this effort. Not even the love scene between William Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh on a fire truck could redeem my enthusiasm for it. 

Through the plot, had Backdraft functioned as a thriller as opposed to a drama and under a different director, who would've injected more bite, tenacity and 'heat', this would've further elevated the film and it, in turn, would have benefited for it. But as it stands, at best it's okay overall, with a potential that is not only left unfulfilled, it is also one that should've been fully realised. 

For all of Ron Howard's efforts, the arson sequences and two or three non-arson related scenes, Backdraft's flame has been well and truly extinguished. 


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