Director Ron Howard torches off more thrilling scenes in Backdraft than any Saturday matinee serial ever dared. Visually, pic often is exhilarating, but it’s shapeless and dragged down by corny, melodramatic characters and situations.
Ex-fireman Gregory Widen’s script about Chicago smokeaters begins with a scene of the two central characters as boys in 1971. This provides shorthand for later formulaic conflicts between fire-fighting brothers Kurt Russell and William Baldwin.
Baldwin is ambivalent about fire-fighting as a result of a childhood experience. His older brother, the charismatic Russell, is a hardboiled sort, even more recklessly heroic than the father.
Widen uncertainly blends these tiresome family quarrels with a suspense plot involving fire department investigator Robert De Niro’s search for a mysterious arsonist. His intense obsessive characterization is a major plus for the film but isn’t given enough screen time.
Though De Niro is portrayed as the Sherlock Holmes of arson investigators, script has him and Baldwin led to the truth by the airheaded assistant (Jennifer Jason Leigh) of a corrupt local alderman (J.T. Walsh) and by an institutionalized pyromaniac played by Donald Sutherland with his customary glee.
The spectacular fire scenes are done with terrifying believability (usually with the actors in the same shot as the fire effects) and a kind of sci-fi grandeur.
1991: Nominations: Best Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects