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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.