Shitty Movie Sundays: Backdraft

Do NOT trust this trailer. This movie sucks.

Nothing is ever interesting enough for Hollywood. If you pitch them a movie about mountain climbers starring Sylvester Stallone, they follow that up by asking what the hook is. Alpine climbing in bad weather just isn’t compelling in their line of thinking, so the movie has to be augmented with a bunch of bad guys who robbed the Treasury Department. And that’s how we got the movie Cliffhanger.

Once upon a time, someone decided to make a film set aboard the most famous shipwreck of all time. Fifteen hundred people died in the sinking, and there were more than enough harrowing true stories of the voyage to fill an entire television series’ worth of time. Yet the film that was made centered on two fictional characters carrying on a star-crossed love affair. And that’s how we got the movie Titanic.

In 1991, Ron Howard made a movie about firefighters in the city of Chicago. Two of the main characters are brothers whose firefighter father died tragically during a call. The older brother had to raise the younger, and followed his father into the department. The younger brother drifted from one crackpot scheme to another, finally succumbing to the inevitable and becoming a firefighter himself. The two siblings can’t stand each other’s company, yet the older brother gets the younger assigned to his firehouse. And through it all there is the beast, the animal, the fires. Life and death situations every time the alarm rings. Now that’s drama. But this premise just wasn’t good enough for Hollywood. So murder, betrayal, and bad guys become what the flick is about, all the compelling stuff be damned. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Backdraft.

So there’s a good idea behind Backdraft, but truth be told, I’m not sure excising the overwrought criminal story that drowns out that good idea would make much of a difference in the film. Backdraft is laughably bad. The script has ridiculous lines that are supposed to be taken seriously, the acting out of near everyone is atrocious (the exception being Robert De Niro), and the direction has a distinct lack of subtlety and imagination.

Anatomy of a scene: two characters, Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin) and Jennifer Vaitkus (Jennifer Jason Leigh), are making love on top of a fire truck in a sleepy firehouse. Meanwhile, downtown, Stephen McCaffrey (Kurt Russell) is leading his fire company through a smoky hallway in a high rise. Back at the firehouse, Brian has disrobed and things are getting sweaty. Switch back to the smoky hallway, and Stephen puts his hand on a wall and says, “She’s hot and smoky, but she’s not rollin’ yet.” A few quick cuts then switch between humping bodies at the firehouse and firefighters knocking down doors with axe thrusts back at the high rise. This sequence actually occurred in a real movie. I did not make this up.

Stephen and Brian are the two brothers mentioned above. There’s a lot of animosity between them, but not a lot of acting. William Baldwin has never been able to act, so nothing can be expected of him. But Kurt Russell, no Laurence Olivier, to be sure, is a competent actor. So when he stinks it up on screen, it’s disappointing. There’s also Scott Glenn as Axe, the grizzled veteran of the firehouse. He doesn’t have much to do in the film until the end, but when he gets his moment of glory, he shows that no one else can outdo his own special blend of canned ham. Thank goodness for Robert De Niro, then. He plays a fire inspector trying to figure out what criminal mastermind is behind the fires that have been killing people in the area where the McCaffrey brothers work. It’s not an Oscar performance, but it’s easy and natural. A viewer is consciously aware they’re watching DeNiro, but in an engrossing, not a distracting way. It’s just coolly professional, what a viewer would expect from someone as talented as Robert De Niro.

It’s too bad his character is mired in that ridiculous Hollywood plot. Backdraft never finds a way past it. It’s such unnecessary bloat in a film whose central idea didn’t need the help. This is one of those movies that’s a general failure from start to finish. The good parts, De Niro and some truly fantastic special effects, get lost in the mess. The one and only thing that makes this film more watchable than Alien: Resurrection is that, at times, Backdraft is eye-rolling funny. It’s not supposed to be, but it is.