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Thursday, May 30, 2019

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Backdraft

Here we are once again on Fishing in the Discount Bin.  You know how it works:  I watch a movie I own and blog about it, because it gives some semblance of purpose to my life.  This time out, I'm doing Backdraft.  This is in my notes at March 15, 2019.

Backdraft is one of those films that I've been thinking about getting for a long time.  It just kind of sits there, on my Amazon wish list.  The other day, I was in Sunrise Records in West Edmonton Mall where I noticed it was released in a special packaging designed to look like an old VHS clamshell.  ("Clamshell packaging" is what the old Disney animated movies came in.)  And at the discount bin price of just $10, I finally figured "What they hey?"  And that's how I got Backdraft in my collection.

I remember Ron Howard's ode to firefighters being a really big deal when it came out in 1991.  I highly doubt it was the first movie about firefighters, but I think it's safe to say it was the first one in a long time.  But what truly made it a big deal were its special effects.  This was still the heyday of practical effects, so Ron Howard enlisted an army of esteemed pyrotechnicians to figure out how to have live fire on the set and do it safely.  So much of that film was done with carefully concealed propane torches.  It did receive some flak, though.  Howard wanted the fire to seem alive...so it would be another character in the film.  As such, well, thanks to Hollywood magic, it doesn't really behave like fire.  Watching it again tonight, I'm pretty sure they threw some animal noises into the sound mix to make it sound like it's roaring.  But you know?  It works. 

I hesitate to say Backdraft is forgotten, but it feels like it.  As I said, it was a big deal when it came out in 1991, and was a pretty big hit, too.  But no one talks about it much anymore.  But still, I figured it was worth re-visiting. 

Billy Baldwin is Brian McCaffrey, and he comes from a family of firefighters.  He watched his father die on a call when he was a kid, which has made him reluctant to go into the family business.  But, after a long string of failed business ventures, he figured it's time to give it a go.  He graduates from the academy, and to his shock and horror, he's assigned to the same firehouse as his brother, Stephen "Bull" McCaffrey, played by Kurt Russell.  Bull is on his way to becoming a legend, but he's growing a little too cocky and a little too reckless, which is driving away his wife. 

Needless to say, the two brothers don't get along so well.  Bull drives Brian harder than all the other new firefighters.  Brian thinks it's because Bull doesn't want him around, and is trying to drive him to quit.  But the truth is Bull is being over-protective of his baby brother.  Yup, Bull's got issues, too, thanks to their father dying on the job. 

Things come to a head on a call, where Bull charges into a burning building to save a kid, but Brian hesitates, and winds up getting knocked on his ass by a fireball.  Shaken by this, Brian calls an old girlfriend of his who now works for an alderman.  Using this connection, Brian gets transferred to investigations, and gets partnered with veteran arson investigator Donald "Shadow" Rimgale, played by Robert DeNiro.  Turns there's an arsonist on the loose, and he using the explosive phenomenon known as a "backdraft" to kill people.  So now it's up to Brian and Shadow to get to the bottom of this mystery. 

Watching it again tonight, it's still a pretty entertaining movie.  The actors are all really good.  I almost forgot to mention Donald Sutherland.  Sutherland plays a pyromaniac that Shadow's working to keep behind bars.  But, since a well-established mystery movie cliche is "go talk to a criminal with a similar MO to gain insight," that's the role that Sutherland plays.  And he is delightfully creepy in this small role. 

I was also taken with the score tonight.  It has a great soundtrack.  I was surprised to see that it's a Hans Zimmer score, as it sounded very James Horner-ish.  It reminded me a lot of James Horner's work on Apollo 13 and Titanic.  But no...Hans Zimmer, and you can hear some of Zimmer's more modern style creep through in places. 

But the special effects are the true star, as the fire still impresses to this very day.  In the Blu-Ray's special introduction by Ron Howard, he mentions that how, when they made this back in 1990, computer animation for visual effects was in its infancy, and they did experiment with using computer animation to do the fire.  When the test footage was absolutely terrible, they decided to go with practical effects.  Indeed, in the bonus features, the special effects technicians say that it would probably all be done digitally today. 

But yeah.  After all these years, Backdraft is still a pretty entertaining yarn.

OK, one last random memory.  The film came out when when I was in junior high.  Grade 8 to be specific.  Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Billy Baldwin's girlfriend in Backdraft.  I distinctly remember my grade 8 crush announcing in class one day that she was jealous of Jennifer Jason Leigh because "she got to f--k Billy Baldwin." 

Ah, childhood.

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