For a while, you may wonder how “Backdraft” will beat the hobbling plot flaw of Steven Spielberg‘s “Always,” another big-budget firefighting picture awash in old-movie nostalgia: how to convince the audience to root not against a villain, but an element. Howard and screenwriter Greg Widen do this two ways.
First, our heroes must contend with a possible arsonist who may or may not be setting the film’s most explosive blazes. Trailing the elusive firebug is arson investigator Donald Rimgale (Robert DeNiro), a gruff veteran who lights unfiltered cigarettes on smoldering rubble and fixes meddling bureaucrats with the stare of a hard-assed shop teacher. Brian McCaffrey quits riding the big red trucks to escape his brother’s domineering attention; once he starts poking through charred ruins with Rimgale, the story really gets cooking, so to speak. Arson investigation is more cerebral and less testosterone-poisoned than firefighting, and De Niro and Baldwin’s wizard/disciple interplay has real charm. Their dogged pursuit of the secrets of arson lifts “Backdraft” right when it starts to get repetitive.
The second, more impressive trick is making fire a character with its own personality and psychology. As characterized by the veterans loping through “Backdraft,” fire is a living thing, and to defeat it you must understand its horrible allure and learn to think like it. This loopy anthropomorphism is sold to us via flame-hugging camerawork, frightening stunts, and the imaginative use of visual effects. Many times, a group of men will be trapped in a burning shaft or a crumbling room, walled in by flame, only to see it slither mysteriously back into a crack or crevice, then reappear suddenly in the damnedest places. It even has its own eerily animalistic sound design: a low, wheezing rumble-moan, like the mighty bellows-lungs of a fire-breathing mythological beast. This creature inhales and exhales in repose, then ramps up to a searing roar when it decides to stop hiding and burst into open air. Fire is the dragon, and the firefighters are the errant knights trying to find it and neutralize it. The shock and suspense in these scenes rivals “Aliens” for sheer intensity.
Clearly, fire is bigger and more mysterious than the human mind can comprehend, although one man comes close: Donald Sutherland, face half-baked by burn scars, as a Hannibal Lecter-ish arsonist that Brian and Rimgale visit behind bars for hints on how to pursue their case. With grandfatherly amusement and giggly hamminess, Sutherland gooses “Backdraft” out of reverence and into the realm of movie magic. Behind his goofy stare and mumbo-jumbo firebug lore, you can almost see the Spirit Of Fire.
“Backdraft” is far from flawless: there are too many shots of fire trucks racing to put out monstrous blazes, too much neo-Yoda wisdom, and too many closeups of fire damaged bodies (one firefighter suffers a wound so gratuitous it may provoke laughter from some viewers: a fall splits his belly open, and whenever that organ is that pops out, it beats like the Grinch’s heart on Christmas Day). But the sheer repetitiveness wedges you into the characters’ mindsets, and after a while, the combination of nonchalant righteousness and terror displayed by McCaffrey and company becomes understandable. “Backdraft” captures the spectacle of America’s last unstained heroes doing their jobs with gusto: saving babies, extinguishing blazes, and facing private demons with smoke-stained apple pie grins. It’s a high-tech childhood fantasy, filmed in Super Hero-Vision. You can laugh at its piousness, but you’d have to be an arsonist to resist its aura of dread and joy.
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