Backdraft 2 Review

(Welcome to DTV Descent, a series that explores the weird and wild world of direct-to-video sequels to theatrically released movies. This week’s descent sees us enter the unexpectedly light on fire sequel to 1991’s Ron Howard hit, Backdraft.)

Ron Howard is often viewed as something of a journeyman director making crowd-pleasers across genres, but while his filmography certainly supports the idea, I’d argue he’s also delivered more than a few legit great films. Rush (2013) was his last high-point, but his strongest run among his twenty-six features is a creative cluster that started with Parenthood (1989) and ended seven years later with Ransom (1996).

Nestled amid those six movies sits Backdraft (1991), and while it has some cheesy bits, it delivers where it counts with thrills, emotion, a stellar cast, and Kurt Russell’s intensely quivering cheek. It’s been twenty-eight years since that drama involving firefighters, arsonists, and political shenanigans, though, and if you’re like me you’ve probably been wondering where the story goes next. Right?!

Well, today’s your lucky day friends, as Backdraft 2 is new to DVD this month.

The Beginning

Backdraft follows two brothers – Stephen and Brian McCaffrey – both firefighters whose father died on the job fighting a blaze, but while Stephen excels Brian falters. The latter witnessed their father’s death as a child, and rather than fight fires directly he joins the arson investigation team where he discovers a connection between a series of deadly fires. With the help of a serial arsonist locked up behind bars, Brian realizes the current fire-starter might just be a firefighter too. Worse, the evidence leaves him suspecting that it might be his brother Stephen. Ruh roh!

The DTV Plot

“Who are you?!” asks the smarmy young man who burned his own girlfriend alive, as the stranger tackles him to the ground. “I’m a fireman,” snarls Sean McCaffrey, an arson investigator in Chicago who lost both his grandfather and father to the family business. Sean’s fueled by a desire to know the truth behind his father’s death, and it’s made him a no-nonsense kind of guy who gets the job done his way and doesn’t work well with others. The heat turns up when an arsonist’s backdraft leaves five innocent trick-r-treaters dead, and as the investigation unfolds Sean faces off against his bosses, a new partner, a sexy geologist, a stray dog, a cantankerous ATF agent, an incarcerated arsonist with diabetes, Eastern European thugs trying to buy a missile targeting system, and a bomb in his bed.

Talent Shift

As is expected from any DTV sequel the drop in talent here is pretty precipitous, but in all fairness, Backdraft sets a pretty high bar. As mentioned, Ron Howard directed the film with the expected degree of experience, style, and professionalism, and he succeeds at immersing viewers into the fire itself. The crew involves another heavy hitter too in the form of Hans Zimmer whose score delivers beautifully with both adrenaline and emotion.

The onscreen talents are even more numerous with a cast that includes Kurt Russell, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Jason Leigh, William Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, Scott Glenn, Rebecca De Mornay, J.T. Walsh, and yes, Clint Howard.

The sequel is directed by Gonzalo Lôpez-Gallego who’s best-known for helming the fairly abysmal found-footage horror film Apollo 18 (2011), but the good news is that this new movie is an improvement. Oddly, and a rarity for DTV fare, the film is written by Gregory Widen who also penned the original. Composer Randy Edelman (Son of the Mask, 2005; Balls of Fury, 2007) is no Hans Zimmer, but he does wisely recycle the first film’s main theme.

Cast-wise, the film’s nature as a direct sequel leads to the return of two actors. Sure it’s William Baldwin and an absolutely bonkers Donald Sutherland, but the continuity is always appreciated. The lead, though, is played by the under-appreciated Joe Anderson, and he does good (if occasionally over the top) work here as the angry son and grandson of dead firefighters. And that’s it for recognizable faces.

How the Sequel Respects the Original

Continuity is never a guarantee with DTV sequels, so it’s nice seeing this story pick up twenty-eight years later with some of the same characters and themes. Sean follows in his Uncle Brian’s footsteps in his disgust for the risk and senseless loss of life his family has faced as well as his inability to walk away completely. His aggressively gung-ho attitude, though, means he’s ultimately a blend of his uncle and his father, and that leads to some expected conflicts that butt up against the real drama and danger posed by the mysterious arsonist.

Also, there’s a little bit of fire.

How the Sequel Shits on the Original

But that’s it! A little bit of fire! Look, I’m no expert here, but it seems to me if you’re making a sequel to Backdraft – a movie about firemen fighting fire – you should have more than a couple scenes actually involving fire. We get a thug on fire and a visually cool shot of fire blasting up from a booby-trapped bed, but otherwise it’s just flames curling around windows. It gets worse within that limitation too as the frequent use of CG is woefully obvious. The original used some digital work as well, but it’s mostly seamless. Here we get a scene of kids being blown off a doorstep, and while I should love it for obvious reasons my joy is sucked away by the ludicrous fx work. No lie, for that second or two it feels like a Sharknado might actually appear at any moment.

While the budget is the main reason for the embarrassing lack of fire sequences the film’s script is equally underbaked. The movie just doesn’t feel like a film about firefighters. Sure we have characters and continued themes from the first film, but their conflicts over fire are hashed out strictly with words as again, we get no dramatic set-pieces in or around fire. The original film’s arson investigation aspects still focused on the fire department, but here the plot shift into a missing missile system (?) just feels out of place. This is the realm of CBS procedurals starring Mark Harmon or Chris O’Donnell, and nothing about it screams fire, brotherhood, and honor.

One conflict filled with exposition unfolds while the floor below rages in flames – judging by fire seen in the windows – and what should be thrilling instead leaves viewers shaking their heads. Dialogue like “Do you really think fire dances for you?” doesn’t help either, and while the first film used Martha & the Vandellas “Heatwave” to lively effect the sequel goes the cheaper and less recognizable route in simply choosing songs for their titles like “Flames” and “Welcome to the Fire.” And in case you’re wondering if you can tell it was filmed in Romania and Toronto instead of Chicago, the answer is a duh. Extras talk with an accent, cityscapes are often digital backdrops, and everything feels so damn small.

The film also ramps up to laughable degrees the riffs on Manhunter (1986) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Sean sits in burned-out rooms and talks to the fire like he’s Will Graham trying to profile the Tooth Fairy, and later he visits Ronald “the genius arsonist” Bartel for insight into his prey. Bartel was also visited in the original film – The Silence of the Lambs and Backdraft were released just three months apart in 1991 – but there Sutherland plays it relatively straight. He gets off on the fire, but he’s not visibly insane. Here, though, Sutherland is playing him as an absolute nutter, and it feels comical when it should feel menacing and enlightening.

Ultimately, the film fails in the two big areas where the original succeeded – the emotion and the awe. Anderson’s performance helps somewhat in getting viewers to care, but he’s overpowered by rough dialogue, weak supporting characters, and a story less interested in the power of fire to pull people together and rip them apart than it is in some military tech being sold to unsavory terrorists. Had the story and characters been stronger the visuals might have been forgivable, and had the fire action been even remotely thrilling the script wouldn’t have mattered as much.

Conclusion

Backdraft 2 isn’t unwatchable – and yes, Universal has my permission to use that as a pull-quote – but it’s a film in desperate need of a bigger budget and stronger script. The minuscule price tag leaves both the fire and the locations feeling wholly underwhelming. Fire at no point feels like a threat here, and where the first film bonded viewers with characters through intense scenes that literally put us inside the inferno, the fires here are small, insincere, and/or visibly CG. The fake Chicago setting is a constant distraction as well as we’re constantly clocking digital backdrops, sketchy accents, and the lack of any notable landmarks. The story wouldn’t have benefited from more money, necessarily, but it also feels less like a feature narrative and more like the plot of an NCIS episode.

So where does that leave Backdraft 2? For all of its numerous issues, and they are legion, there’s also a dog that might just be the best arson investigator in the film. So yeah, maybe there’s just enough here to make a watch worthwhile for fans of the original – but I would wait until it hits a streaming service you’re already paying for…

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