Review: “Backdraft” (1991)

“Backdraft” is known as a special effects-driven epic with some familial drama written in; nobody could argue Ron Howard’s film doesn’t earn that classification. There’s hardly a scene in the film that doesn’t include some lofty speech, or some feats of derring-do. There’s more to “Backdraft” than stunts, though, and it has to do with romance — not romance between characters (though there are requisite sex scenes) but romance between the firefighters and their prey. Never before has fire been filmed with such reverence and … eroticism. Arson investigator Shadow Rimgale puts a finer point on this, describing fire not as a phenomenon but as a feeling, living being. “The only way to truly kill it is to love it a little,” Shadow explains, almost lovingly. So “Backdraft,” really, is something of a love story.

If fire is the object of desire here, it does not lack suitors, and their stories — written and filmed without particular originality — only serve to complicate the bizzarely fascinating courtship dance of man and flame. Gregory Widen’s script supplies conflict in the form of two warring brothers, Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey (Kurt Russell) and Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin). The scenario is quite familiar: Bull fulfills the expectations everyone has for the son of a heroic firefighter. He has a wife (Rebecca De Mornay) and a son and a company of firefighters – including Axe Adcox (Scott Glenn, superb and heartbreaking), Tim (Jason Gedrick) and Grindle (Cedric Young) — he’d happily die to protect. Being the younger brother, Brian plays the perennial screw-up who bounced from one job to another, one girl to another, until stumbling into his big brother’s shadow once again. (It would be refreshing to see these roles reversed just once, no?) Bull, as his name suggests, is stubborn and brash; he endangers himself and his men by taking big risks, a habit that has threatened his career and his marriage. He’s a hero capable of sweeping dramatic actions who can’t handle day-to-day life. Russell plays him with a touch of sadness, and he hints at something a little darker: Maybe Bull’s reasons for doing the job aren’t as noble as he preaches they are. Maybe, as Rimgale suggests, fire is a femme fatale to get hooked on.

Brian and Bull’s problems serve as one piece of the bigger picture. The script has romantic entanglements — Jennifer Jason Leigh gives an underwhelming performance as Brian’s ex – that feel unnecessary (though De Mornay labors to make her character more than a blip on the screen) and, worse still, bothersome. They clutter up the film’s more intriguing substory: Rimdale’s investigation into a series of puzzling fires. Believed to be the work of a serial arsonist targeting Chicago’s connected politicos like councilman Swayzak (J.T. Walsh, possessed of a pair of squinty, up-to-something-rotten peepers), they are highly unusual because they are backdrafts — fire’s explosive response to the reintroduction of oxygen into flames that had exhaused the O2. If the science behind Howard’s creation of this phenomenon is iffy, his execution is not. The effects flirt with sheer brilliance, as Howard’s lens captures flames that undulate independently and together, like reeds rippled by an afternoon breeze. The camera accomplishes the tremendous feat of giving fire the forceful personality De Niro talks about. The flames are alluring and treacherous, capable of sensing — harshly punishing — those who do not respect them. Hans Zimmer’s score, expectedly boisterous, seems too overpowering for such a delicate, deadly creation.

Few other characters in “Backdraft” seem as nuanced as the flames Chicago’s Engine 17 chases down, though some come close. De Niro and Donald Sutherland (as arsonist Ronald Bartel) brings quiet eroticism to their parts. These are two men entranced by fire, and they are not ashamed to admit their fascination. Russell’s Bull is equal parts selflessness and swaggering bravado, a do-gooder who would prefer to escape into a burning warehouse than face his everyday life. And then we have Glenn*, who does so much with limited screentime it’s a wonder he didn’t nab a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Axe goes through the motions of heroics, talks the talk and walks the walk. His eyes tell a thornier tale.

Grade: B-

*Glenn tops the Pompous Film Snob’s Man Crush list, and after “Backdraft” I can see why.

Review: “Internal Affairs” (1990)

What makes a bad guy terrifying? Is it flashy weaponry, or henchmen crouching in the shadows with triggers cocked, or evil schemes more tangled than the plot of “Chinatown”? Such gimmicks are handy, even deserving of some nail biting, but they aren’t terrifying. What elevates a villain from alarming to unsettling is the knack for sniffing out the demons lurking in “good men” and knowing, instinctively, how to coax them out of hiding. Richard Gere, the Iago-esque crook of “Internal Affairs,” shows true villainy done right. He’s the evildoer who knows your dark heart better than you do.

Gere, never a particularly expressive actor, turns in the cutthroat performance that outshines every other and propels Mike Figgis’ somewhat derivative cop thriller all the way to its climax. The unassuming menace and energy are Gere’s alone, but Figgis abets the actor by presenting him as a regular L.A.P.D. patrolman in the beginning of “Internal Affairs.” Dennis even looks the part of sage mentor/father figure to the younger officers, like his trigger-happy partner, Van Stretch (William Baldwin), and Dorian Fletcher (Michael Beach), a by-the-book cop working his way up. It helps that Dennis is a family man: he’s working on his fourth marriage and has eight kids, including one on the way, that he talks about often. How good a cover children make for crookedness, because who doesn’t trust a devoted, doting father with a cheerful photo scrapbook in his wallet? The people in “Internal Affairs” who make this mistake only make it once, some because they don’t live to be fooled again.

While Raymond Avila (Andy Garcia), new to L.A.P.D.’s Internal Affairs Division, doesn’t immediately peg Dennis as a criminal mastermind at their first meeting, he has his suspicions. So does his Amy (Laurie Metcalfe), who’s quick to remind Raymond of his place: “You know all your friends from the force? You don’t have them anymore.” Raymond has a hard time with that; he likes to think he can balance his past with his bright future. The detectives’ investigation of Van’s latest excessive force charge leads them to wonder how Van and Dennis, living on LAPD salaries, can afford $400,000 homes. Not even Amy, sharp as she is, understands how far he’ll go to push people to their breaking points. For Raymond, that proves as simple as probing the tension between Raymond and his wife Kathleen (Nancy Travis). Dennis makes plain the delight he takes in his mission: “You’re so fucking easy, Raymond. Like a big baby with buttons all over. I push the buttons.” Dennis’ ability to find and exploit people’s weaknesses is impressive; Gere’s ability to make a man like that seem both normal and scary as hell  is astounding.

This performance aside, “Internal Affairs” doesn’t win any points for originality. Crooked cop stories have been around just about as long as good and evil has been around, it seems, and Henry Bean’s script contains few attempts to revamp the old concept. Garcia’s character lacks any kind of real history to explain his dramatic switch from straight man to raving, jealous monster (Garcia’s acting may be to blame there), while Kathleen comes off as that old standard, the Long-Suffering Cop’s Wife. But there’s something fascinating about the way Bean provides us with a “hero” and a “villain” who turn out to be very similar. Dorian sees it: “You’re just like Peck,” he tells Raymond, and he’s correct. Raymond can profile and manipulate people to do his bidding, even if Garcia doesn’t quite sell that aspect of the character. Perhaps it’s that Garcia or anyone else in “Internal Affairs” can’t compete with Gere, whose performance as Dennis Peck should be considered the Acting 101 standard for crooked cops.

Just as Gere creates a formidable evildoer, cinematographer John A. Alonzo crafts a nebulous environment fit for him to operate in. Alonzo’s camera takes in the underbelly of L.A. — the dirty, forgotten back alleys, the foreboding nooks under bridges and overpasses — and gives it a hazy, almost noirish beauty. His L.A. is a place where the lights twinkle, but they never show the Dennis Pecks waiting in the shadows to, much like Iago, “poison the delight” of unsuspecting men.

Grade: B

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