Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A great cast is weighed down by a weak script

Backdraft (1991)
Starring: William Baldwin, Kurt Russell, Robert DeNiro, Jason Gedrick, Donald Sutherland, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Scott Glenn
Director: Ron Howard
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A green-horn arson investigator (Baldwin), analyzing information about a series of bizarre fires provided to him by a pyromaniac arsonist (Sutherland), comes to believe there is a fire-bug within the ranks of the city's fire department... within the very company commanded by his estranged older brother (Russell).

"Backdraft" is a movie with some spectacular stunt and scenes involving supposedly raging fires. It's a bit unbelievable how Russell's character constantly charges into burning buildings without proper equipment (even while every other firefighter around him is properly suited up), but the story and characters are interesting enough that ends up being a minor complaint.

What is somewhat more damning is the fact the movie seems to meander a bit, as Howard insists on a dull and distracting subplot about Stephen's failed marriage. The film would have seemed a lot more suspenseful if the building drama hadn't been interrupted three times for interludes with Stephen trying to recapture what is already gone. (All Howard needed was the scene where Brian goes to Stephen's home, only to be told he doesn't live there anymore.)

The mystery portion of the film (the who, how, and why of the artful fires) works very well, and, as mentioned, the fire-related scenes are all spectacular... "Backdraft" can truly be said to have a fiery climax!

Of the actors, Donald Sutherland deserves special mention. His part is fairly small, but he definitely puts on an interesting show as the batshit-crazy arsonist who wants to burn down the whole world, and who believes fire is a living beast that must be loved and fed. (DeNiro and he are arch-enemies, and DeNiro's otherwise bland character becomes more interesting because of the one Sutherland so brilliantly plays... because both men seem to think of fire in the same way.)

"Backdraft" is a movie I think is worth seeing at least once. It's a shame that Howard and the script writers didn't see fit to serve up a more streamlined final product... that probably would have resulted in this good movie being a great one.

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