The Towering Inferno: Ron Howard’s BACKDRAFT (1991)

How the longtime Hollywood workman mixed heightened melodrama with disaster porn spectacle, resulting in an old school blockbuster.

Solo is coming to theaters later this month (get your tickets here!). To celebrate the latest Star Wars installment, we're running a month-long appreciation of Ron Howard's best movies. First up: the 1991 Chicago fireman's ball, Backdraft...

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"They don't make 'em like that anymore."

It's a strange idea that's overcome pop culture analysis of all forms – the notion that an older work of art was crafted in such a fashion that just isn't replicated in the modern landscape. Sort of a silly phrase to utter, really; movies made now benefit from technological advances that weren't available to artists ten years ago. The same goes for films crafted during the '90s, the '80s, the '70s, the '60s, and so on. Like any medium, cinema grows and improves upon its toolbox, leaving antiquated means of design behind as CGI replaced prosthetics, and digital landscapes overtook model work while inventing new and exciting environments for a filmmaker’s camera to explore. Of course they don’t make ‘em like that anymore, because we’ve moved past that point as a people.

However, the idiom still seems rather apt when discussing Backdraft – Ron Howard's blustery, bombastic ode to Chicago firemen that combines a flair for star-studded Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure ['72], The Towering Inferno ['74]) melodramatic schlock, early '90s thriller procedural, and a Universal Studios stunt show where any of these numerous, anonymous performers could be killed by the next fiery blast that tosses them through the air like a rag doll. There's no need for subtlety, because every single one of the hunky studs who make up Backdraft's incredibly impressive cast commits to the disaster porn blood that beats through its blazing heart. This is old school spectacle even by the standards of the era in which it was made, attempting to capture the tangible danger and sweaty heroics of these chiseled civil servants.

The most astounding aspect of Backdraft – especially when viewed in the CGI age – is how most of these raging infernos are practically set. We feel the fireballs’ heat as the McCaffrey Brothers – legendary older bro Stephen (Kurt Russell); deadbeat ne'er do well Brian (William Baldwin) – and the rest of Company 17 charge into smoldering Chi-Town buildings, not caring one iota for their own safety. In a sense, Howard's picture is a superhero tale, only these larger than life figures could double as your next door neighbors, or the brawny regulars at the bar you frequent, living out of their riverboats because the city doesn't pay enough for them to afford a downtown loft (though they'd still save its residents, should they catch the call). Sure, it's totally corny, but Howard (along with Highlander ['86] screenwriter Greg Widen) has a genuine admiration for their everyday selflessness that's genuinely inspiring.

The enormous sacrifice these men are willing to make is made abundantly clear during the picture’s prologue, as young Brian rides along with his proud papa, Captain Dennis McCaffrey (Kurt Russell, in a mustache-sporting bit of dual casting), only to see him blown to bits after leaping through a window to try and save a screaming baby. The Captain's helmet is blasted clear out of the building, miraculously landing at little Brian's feet, resulting in a photo that would grace the cover of Time magazine. This is now Kid McCaffrey's legacy – the sad child holding his dad's smoking cap – which he'd run from for the majority of his life, all while Stephen remained in Chicago and took up the family business. As you can probably expect, this escape caused some friction between the two, and after Brian returns home – broke, with his tail tucked between his legs – his only remaining option is to try and be a fireman like his daddy. Once Stephen has him transferred to Company 17 upon Academy graduation, the Battle of the McCaffrey Brothers is on.

The whole thing could’ve been – and, in all honesty, still borders on becoming – totally saccharine if it weren't for the pulsing star wattage of Russell and Baldwin, who generate a legitimate chemistry as the bickering siblings (all while Bruce Hornsby tracks blare). Russell in particular is rather imposing, alternately suppressing and then resurrecting his “Duke Wayne” persona, depending on what the scene calls for. When we're following Stephen into a fireman's ball, watching him get drunk and pine for the wife (Rebecca De Mornay, who's woefully underutilized) that left him due to his calling, there's softness to Russell's big blue eyes that shines underneath that square, militaristic crew cut. But after another blaze breaks out, and Stephen barges into a smoke-filled bedroom, hoping to retrieve a crying child like his father would’ve done, the icon is again an urban cowboy, while Howard – with the aid of The Abyss ('89) cinematographer Mikael Salomon – frames him as the thundering titan he is. Kurt Russell has always been a pop idol who still felt tethered to gravity like the rest of us, and Backdraft exploits that duology for all it's worth.

This human/hero dichotomy actually extends to the entirety of Company 17, which is populated by a cadre of lumpy, brilliant character actors, all of whom embrace the working class emblem Howard is desperately striving to capture. Scott Glenn reigns supreme in all his sinewy glory as Axe, smoking cigarettes amidst the rubble of a recently extinguished disaster zone and reminiscing about how he helped raise the McCaffrey boys when their dad was still around. Jack McGee reminds you why he was such a welcome presence in these '90s studio works – a short, portly bulldog of a man who barks commands and observations in equal measure, always quick to restrain Stephen from beating the shit out of whomever he's angry at while liquored up. Juan Ramírez makes one wonder why the hell his career was so short – only twenty-eight roles including this, The Fugitive ('93), and Child's Play ('88). Howard's got an eye for idiosyncratic faces, and all of these men fit right into the Chicago setting, while still seeming fantastically elevated in terms of their gruff machismo. 

Widen’s script inserts a mysterious procedural into the middle of all the brotherly bickering and male bonding that feels right in line with the popular serial killer fiction that was on the rise in the mid-'80s/early '90s (think: Thomas Harris' Red Dragon), while appearing mere months after Silence of the Lambs ('91) debuted in auditoriums across America. Fed up with all the macho bullshit his bro puts him through, Stephen quits Company 17 only to join up with municipal arson investigator Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro, stealing every scene he appears in). Rimgale is hounded by shady politician Marty Swayzak – consummate bespectacled scumbag J.T. Walsh (may he rest in peace) – to solve a string of deadly "backdrafts"; blasts that have been clearly orchestrated by someone very familiar with the mechanics of fire. Only the arson dick’s got a style all his own, and doesn’t answer to a single person until his investigation is complete.

To consult on these crimes, Donald meets with blaze-obsessed maniac Ronald Bartel (a super creepy Donald Sutherland), whose obsession led to a concurrent enjoyment of murder – roasting children alive and even scarring Rimgale for life via the orange "animal" he so covets. Ronald is essentially Hannibal Lecter with a match book, and Donald is his Will Graham; feeling pulled from a completely different film, whose moments nevertheless gift Backdraft a needed boost when its near Sirkian histrionics begin to bore. All the while, Stephen is tutored by this fireball sleuth in the art of deducing the cause of burned buildings, while becoming embroiled in a possibly ill-advised romance with Swayzak's assistant, Jennifer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who can't let the gorgeous fireman just waste away at his brother's behest. It’s all so tawdry and flamboyant - mainstream cinema unafraid to be a bold, poppy mash-up.

In the end, Howard's film truly excels as a showcase for blood, bone and combustion. Backdraft sends these men into looming firestorms to retrieve stranded civilians, the SFX crew and stunt team working double-time to transform Chicago – a metropolis that becomes a textured character unto itself via wonderful location shooting – into a gauntlet of burning buildings, each hotter than the last. By the time the mystery and the stunt show intertwine, bringing the movie to its predictable climax, we're still utterly satisfied because Howard wants these flames to lick the audience's face, just as they do the actors’. It's difficult to imagine a movie this practically thrilling being made near thirty years later, regardless of tech advances because there's a true danger to all the smoky, hellish nightmares these men attempt to contain without a second thought. In celebrating the common heroes we often take for granted, Ron Howard crafted a blockbuster that’s awe-inspiring, due to the fact that it reminds us of the mortality civil servants face every day, whilst attempting to keep us all safe from harm. 

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