Endless Summer: Backdraft (1991)

Time is relative right now. The jury’s still out on any semblance of a summer movie season. Thus, the Midwest Film Journal is celebrating — at least in the astronomical sense — Endless Summer. In this intermittent series, which will run through the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22, we’ll look back at summer films from seasons past. Big, small, light, heavy, wild successes and weird misfires. Our multiplex is full and open for Endless Summer.


I am 4 years old and the perfect amount of scarecited during Ghostbusters. I am 18, new to a college that has roughly 15,000 times more students than my high school, drinking bad beer at penny-pincher prices and trying to make new friends at a triple feature of Event Horizon, Batman & Robin and Speed 2: Cruise Control. I’m 13 and enjoying a different triple feature of Jurassic Park, Last Action Hero and Hot Shots! Part Deux alongside people I’m still friends with today. We were sober in a chemical sense, given our crazed laughter at the last film in a theatre to ourselves.

I’m 32 and discovering I inherited more movie-analysis mojo from my mom than I probably ever realized when, after The Avengers, she noted exactly how long it took for Bruce Banner to transform into the Hulk. I am 16 going on 17 … and going on the shortest date I ever had as a single man. Round-trip travel: 50 minutes. The Cable Guy: 96 minutes. Dinner at McDonald’s (date’s choice): 25 minutes. (Chemistry-free silence? Interminable.) I would spend longer than those 171 minutes watching Avengers: Endgame in a theatre 23 years later with my wife.

I’m 27 and locking into the energy of a live-wire midnight crowd that’s tossing toys at the screen while Samuel L. Jackson profanely seethes about all those Snakes on a Plane. I’m 11 and removing my soaked socks and shoes after dashing across a parking lot in a downpour with my parents to see Ghost. Where? Somewhere in the Midwest for a driving-distance vacation. Yes, movies on vacation. Tourist attractions and historical landmarks have their place, but movie theatres I’ll never see again are still mysterious meccas over which I can marvel. (For example: I’m 14 and catching a triple bill of Rising Sun, Coneheads and So I Married an Axe Murderer while my mom shops at the Mall of America — which has a freaking roller coaster on the inside. And yet, I’m still at the movies.)

My friend Nate’s unexpectedly emotional chair-kick in response to unethical experimentation on John Travolta’s character in Phenomenon. Explaining what “cutting off our egg rolls” meant to my young nephews during a perhaps ill-advised matinee of Rush Hour 2. (My rationale: It was time they understood that Jackie Chan is a gifted physical comedian.) Making the trip five times for Mad Max: Fury Road and sitting as close as I could stand for each viewing. Arriving late to Who Framed Roger Rabbit and begging an usher to let us watch the first 20 minutes of the next show that we had missed. (Success!) Running into friends’ parents and talking them into seeing Cliffhanger instead of Dave, as they’d planned, because that particular box-office employee wouldn’t sell R-rated tickets to junior-high kids. (Thanks, Lee and David, and I’m still sorry Cliffhanger was so violent.) Getting really high to watch Deep Impact on opening night … and timing the intake poorly to that film’s unexpectedly depressing back half. Walking into the AMC Castleton to review Terminator: Salvation — my first new summer blockbuster as an Indiana resident, joined by a high-school friend from Illinois who had moved eastward years before … and alongside whom I couldn’t hold back snickers at a stranger’s especially blubbery reaction to the end of Forrest Gump, 15 summers earlier.

Memories and milestones across 36 conscious summers — forever intertwined with movies at the multiplex, sometimes echoing and rippling in decidedly unexpected ways. Like my good friend Doctor Breadhole, I am in every auditorium and no auditorium. This summer, it’s likely to be the latter — at least outside of the modestly sized make-do one we’ve made in our home.

It was there that I rewatched, for the first time in at least a decade (if not two), 1991’s Backdraft — director Ron Howard’s effects-laden spectacle inspired by the bravery of Chicago firefighters, the rapacious bureaucracy that endangers them, and the power of Bruce Hornsby songs to fuel a mean montage. To 11-year-old Nick, the idea of paying $5 to stream it with an HDR-enhanced 4K picture and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround sound on Vudu certainly would’ve sounded like a bunch of gibberish. But to watch Backdraft as such was to most closely approximate the audiovisual oomph with which I first saw it … and a refreshing reminder that summer is as much a state of mind as it is an astronomical season.

This story starts with that aforementioned school system — the one 15,000 times smaller than the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Eastland school district reflects a consolidation of the northwest Illinois towns of Lanark (population 1,334) and Shannon (population 690). Each town had its own grade school. The high school was in Lanark, where I lived. The junior high was in Shannon, to and from which Lanark junior high kids caught a bus each day. Drop-off duties usually fell to my mom, whose work schedule aligned best to the bus schedule. I’d usually walk home in the afternoon or catch a ride with a friend’s parent.

By May 1991, when Backdraft was released, I had probably seen the movie’s teaser trailer a dozen times and chatted up all my classmates about it on those bus rides. (No YouTube then. I just went to as many movies as I possibly could for someone who lived 20 minutes away from the nearest theatre.) Kurt Russell running in slow-motion with a child tucked under his arm. Fire billowing across ceilings and retreating under thresholds like a cautious ghost. Scenes of Robert De Niro berating some unknown subordinate. (To an 11-year-old kid in love with movies, De Niro seemed like the ultimate badge of honor. “This one has Robert De Niro in it! It has to be great!”) Offering no dialogue or sense of story, the teaser paints Backdraft as some sort of multigenerational American epic rather than a rip-roaring summer action film crossed with a well-cast disaster movie.

The Backdraft poster, featuring a faceless firefighter nonchalantly striding in flame, also fascinated me. (At some point, I acquired it and displayed it proudly alongside my Michael Jordan, Bart Simpson and 1989 Batman posters.) The tagline’s notion that fire can, in an instant, “create a hero… or cover a secret” hinted at a larger mysterious plotline, and I studied the poster’s credits closely — to a point where, when Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character offhandedly mentions “Larry DeWaay” in the movie, I recognized that name as the film’s credited co-producer. 

Backdraft was pretty much an obsession — second only to Terminator 2: Judgment Day among summer movies for which I could not wait that year. (To be fair: If there had been readily available T-shirts for me to wear out over the course of the summer a la T2, Backdraft  might have been #1 in my heart. (Rounding out the top five? Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Rocketeer and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.) I’m certain I could not shut up about Backdraft, and that’s why my mom decided I should see it in a way that made me speechless.

I was a pretty straitlaced kid. In second grade, I got in trouble for saying “fuck” in class out of concern for our class hamster’s unexplained disappearance — as in “Where the fuck is Hammy?” Smart enough to be concerned for Hammy’s wellbeing, obtuse enough to not understand he had probably just died and been disposed of so as not to make a fuss. During junior high, I got into one locker-room fight that ended before I could make any really stupid decision that would’ve resulted in a kicked ass. In high school, I told my math teacher that her methods were “bullshit” and got sent to the principal’s office. When told what I had done to deserve this, the principal’s office manager just laughed and told me to wait until my next class started. The rare time that my parents left for a weekend when I was in high school, I did throw a party. A good half-dozen people were there, and I wiped down all the beer bottles the next day before driving 15 minutes to a quarry and throwing them in there to destroy all evidence.

So I was very concerned on that May day in 1991 when my mom decided to throw out the rules I knew. I got ready for school. She got ready for work. We headed down Route 64 to the high school, bus idling and ready. But she didn’t slow down for the left-hand turn into the high-school drive. She kept going straight. When I asked what was happening, she told me not to worry. But I was, indeed, very worried. What if I got in trouble? What if I missed a quiz? What if my grades dropped? I hadn’t even considered a fun alternative, only the irrational fear that I somehow would not complete the sixth grade.

Anyway, my anxiety over this abrupt adjustment to the usual plan probably prompted her to spoil the surprise earlier than she would’ve preferred: We were going to Chicago, more than a two-hour drive away. But that’s all she told me. My brother Tony lived there (and still does), so I figured we’d be seeing him at some point (which we did). Now, I might have recognized the McClurg Court theatre in downtown Chicago as we approached it, but I may have momentarily blacked out before realizing THAT IS WHERE I WAS GOING TO SEE BACKDRAFT FOR THE FIRST TIME.

I had been to McClurg at least once before that I could recall, to see The Abyss two summers earlier during a weekend visit with Tony. Although McClurg hardly matched the aesthetic marvel of movie palaces I had yet to experience (such as the Tivoli in St. Louis or the Lorraine Theatre in Hoopeston, Illinois), it was a monolith in my young mind. Well before most movie theatres modestly bumped up screen size and slapped some IMAX logos on a wall, McClurg was truly a premium experience. The sound was THX-certified. If a film had a 70mm print for impeccable clarity — as this screening of Backdraft did — McClurg Court would show it as such.

Squeezed out by a 21-screen multiplex down the street, McClurg Court closed in 2003; even by the time I had experienced it, the once single-screen auditorium had already been carved into a main and two shoeboxes. But still: With hundreds upon hundreds of available seats in that main room and a screen so big it seemed to fill the capacity of my brain, it was like a giant audiovisual spaceship had landed on Earth. And for that matinee of Backdraft, my mom and I had it mostly to ourselves. I’ll never forget the alchemical charge of watching a film in the city where it was (so very beautifully) shot — with an immaculate presentation that made me feel like some aspects of the movie might actually be unfolding a few blocks away. 

To be honest, I had forgotten how truly stunning the location work in Backdraft is, evocative of Chicago’s snub-nosed personality and metropolitan sprawl in a way unrivaled by any blockbuster made in the city until The Dark Knight — with which this film shares some downtown-office real estate in scenes featuring scumbag emeritus J.T. Walsh as Alderman Swayzak.

Ah, J.T. Walsh. For kids of the 1980s and 1990s, Walsh embodied the erosive rot at the center of many American institutions, and the late, great character actor reigns supreme here among a murderer’s row of bit players. Today, it’s easy to see De Niro, rather than making this one of the greatest movies ever made, is cashing a paycheck — as he would do so often, and sometimes embarrassingly, in ensuing years — but he’s rarely done it with such grace to get out of the way of a film where special-effects sizzle is the real star. De Niro also crackles in his scenes alongside Donald Sutherland as lifelong firebug Ronald, who comes off as a comic-relief version of Hannibal Lecter until he starts gleefully talking about a fire so hot that it burned De Niro’s shadow on the wall (and malevolently referring to De Niro’s character as Shadow). A brief note on Backdraft 2, which you may be shocked to hear is an actual thing: Sutherland appears in this ill-advised straight-to-VOD sequel from 2019 — an unnecessarily complicated and unfathomably cheap continuation before which returning screenwriter Gregory Widen seemed to have read too many Jack Reacher books.

Although Backdraft never mentions the Chicago Fire of 1871, it lingers in the back of your mind throughout the movie — emblematic of the herculean civic effort required to rebuild a city and a reminder that immutable laws of science and nature will often have their way no matter what. Howard and cinematographer Mikael Salomon (who also shot The Abyss) visually depict fire like a haunted-house poltergeist, recoiling with a chilling whoosh before engulfing without warning. There are enough moments during which Russell, William Baldwin and a gristle-and-sinew Scott Glenn are all close enough to face-licking flames that you believe both the danger their characters face — and the desperation they come to feel — could explode at any moment.

Indeed, everything about Backdraft feels combustible — the brotherly clashes between Russell and Baldwin, Hans Zimmer’s elegant-meets-electronic score (one of his most compelling), the craven city-government bureaucracy, the superfluous sex. (At one point, Leigh and Baldwin get it on atop a fire engine in a moment straight out of Top Gun, intercut with dialogue about how a fire is “hot and smoky” but “not rolling yet.”) It doesn’t take long for Backdraft to accelerate into a four-alarm conflagration of sibling melodrama, mysterious intrigue, monotony and mighty valor that make up a firefighter’s duties, and the hellacious scenarios into which such men and women throw themselves.

Given decadal advances in filmcraft, it’s easy to ask why exactly anyone would ever want to, as the saying goes, make ’em like they used to. In an era of computer-augmented extravaganza, Backdraft is as good an answer as any — arguably the best-looking blockbuster of the 1990s without any obvious hand-ups from software. To make Backdraft today, with pixelated fire and a likely PG-13 rating preventing the sight of charred bodies blown back through Porsche windshields, would rob it of any reason to exist.

Like so many expertly film with practical effects remastered in 4K, Backdraft looked as gorgeous the other day as it has in my memory for 29 years. The image clarity is spine-tingling (you can even see a hickey on Leigh in one scene). The subwoofer rattles the room. There’s an even more incendiary color palette than I’d remembered as fires rage, rise and bloom like a blight over warehouse walls, and an extra-thick, drippy dimension to the brown, smoky mucus Baldwin hacks up after handling a fire. 

Gross? Oh, yes. But such grossness is why Backdraft ultimately works. The R-rating works in its favor to depict the abject mercilessness of fire. Objectively, Backdraft is an overlong and overheated piece of work. But Howard’s film is nevertheless human in its mess and, for all its indulgence, still feels tactile and urgent to me in its conveyance of lives jeopardized.

The memories with which I associate Backdraft feel equally palpable. Showtimes, tickets and directions were not simply available at the click of a button in May 1991. My mom couldn’t just fire off an email to coordinate this outing with my brother. No, they somehow conspired using telephones and voices, and under a nose so finely attuned to all things Backdraft, to make this happen — him to give showtimes, her to figure out directions and parking … and, yes, tell the school I’d be out that day. (You might wonder if there’s a photo of me in a Just Do It T-shirt and hideously neon shorts next to the Backdraft poster at McClurg Court giving a thumbs-up. You would be right. But you do not get to see it.) To me, Backdraft is inextricable from the day that I learned that it’s necessary to occasionally relent from the rigid, recalibrate with spontaneity and, most of all, relish in an unexpected moment with the people you love every so often.

I’m 9 years old, feeling sick but deciding I’ll just wait to throw up until after we get home so I don’t have to miss opening night of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I’m 19 in a car with friends, barreling down the interstate in foolhardy fashion to outrun a tornado en route to watch Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace for a fourth time. I’m 29 and finally figuring out why DreamWorks had hyped Kung Fu Panda so much for months on end. I’m 39 and feeling 9 as I watch Rodan barrel down in barrel-rolls on unsuspecting fighter jets in Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

I’m 40 and … I so very much miss all of this. I desperately want it back. I know that, theoretically, I can have it with makeshift engagements of summer hits past such as Jaws, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Jurassic Park as theatres open up. (And I know drive-ins are open; I’m 12 and watching my mom start the car and throw it in reverse, disgusted by Grace Jones loudly shouting about her genitals in Boomerang … but hey, at least I got to see Cool World beforehand.)

But look: Chances are good, if you’re still reading, that movie posters adorn the many walls of your mind palace, too. Your titles, dates, details and people are different but they are, in the existential ways, the same. My life is wrapped up in movies. Your life is wrapped up in movies. We shouldn’t have worry about wrapping up either of our lives because of a movie. 

Whenever it’s safe to go, I’ll be back … ready for another 40 summers or more. In the meantime, my colleagues and I — along with some guest commentators — look forward to sharing our Endless Summer with you.



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An award-winning film critic and features reporter, Nick has professionally written or gabbed about movies for Illinois newspapers, national syndicates, Playboy, The Art Immortal, The Film Yap and Midwest radio stations. He once drummed in a Billy Joel cover band known as Silly Joel and freely presents his Letterboxd page to engage and mock if you wish: https://letterboxd.com/ragekage79/


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