The plot elements seem assembled for maximum audience rooting potential. In a ghastly flashback to an incident that made national headlines 20 years earlier, the McCaffrey brothers watch their firefighter father perish while rescuing a child (the father, oddly, is played by Kurt Russell in dinner theater “old age” makeup). The brothers drift apart. Stephen McCaffrey follows in the old man’s sooty footsteps, collecting awards and citations, but he’s a troubled hero. His wife Helen (Rebecca DeMornay) grows weary of his psychotic devotion to duty and divorces him, and Stephen’s self-righteousness alienates his younger brother Brian (played with quiet authority by William Baldwin). Brian is a screwup drifter who chose firefighting as a last resort; he must prove himself on the job to earn his older brother’s respect and capture the affections of his childhood sweetheart, Jennifer (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It doesn’t take a MacArthur Foundation genius grant to figure out that by the story’s end, Stephen will make peace with his wife, Brian will win Jennifer’s love, and the McCaffrey brothers will booze, curse, and brawl their way back into each other’s arms.
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.