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Film / Backdraft

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Donald "Shadow" Rimgale: In a word, Brian, what is this job all about?
Brian McCaffery: Fire.
Donald "Shadow" Rimgale: It's a living thing, Brian. It breathes, it eats... and it hates.

Backdraft is a 1991 American action-drama film directed by Ron Howard and written by Gregory Widen (Highlander, The Prophecy). The film stars Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert De Niro and Scott Glenn. Donald Sutherland, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, Jason Gedrick, Hardy Patel, Brian Jaramillo and J. T. Walsh co-star in the film.

In The Windy City, young Brian McCaffery (Baldwin) is a man going from one dead-end job to another, until he gets it in his head to be a firefighter alongside his brother, Stephen "Bull" McCaffery (Russell), and the men of the Engine 17 crew. Brian's past precedes him; he was photographed at the scene of his firefighter father's death by arson, as he watched from the ground. Now, in the present day, another arsonist has killed two city officials, and after Brian is transferred to the investigative division of the Fire Department, it is up to him and arson investigator Donald "Shadow" Rimgale (De Niro) to sniff out the arsonist before anyone else is torched.

A Direct to Video sequel, Backdraft 2, was released on May 14, 2019, with William Baldwin and Donald Sutherland reprising their roles as Brian McCaffery and Ronald Bartel respectively.

This movie contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Ronald Bartel, a pyromaniac who admits he'd burn the world if he could, is genuinely fond of arson investigator Donald "Shadow" Rimgale, who'd saved his life and caught him at the same time. He's also friendly and polite to Brian. Despite this he remains a depraved and creepy man, naturally.
  • Animal Motifs: Stephen "Bull"(headed) McCaffery, tying in with Meaningful Name. Helps that he has the logo of the Chicago Bulls basketball team on the back of his helmet.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The crew is seen to be taking another call just before the credits roll.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Trychtichlorate, which is utilized by the arsonist as the main accelerant for his rampage. It is both incredibly good at its job and it turns out that Engine 17 had so much of it lying around because it had done some painting of the station earlier. Stephen taking some that were left over to paint his boat is what gives Brian a "Eureka!" Moment (after fearing his brother is the arsonist and confronting him).
  • Artistic License:
    • Invoked In-Universe with Tim, on his very first fire scene, asking one of the firefighters if they'd gotten a "second lead" out. The actual term is attack line or simply line. Understandably, the firefighter reacts with confusion and (properly) tells him to get the hell out of the way.
    • Real fires tend to involve blinding amounts of smoke that force firefighters to feel around for objects and people with their hands and feet. Real Life firefighters gave this film a pass, though, admitting that a screen full of dark billowing smoke doesn't really make for a visually exciting experience. However, you can safely assume that nothing you see a fire do in this movie could/would ever happen in real life.
    • Along those lines, it's said that Stephen McCaffrey never wears his breathing mask in a fire. This would probably get him killed by his second fire in Real Life - because of said blinding amounts of smoke, which is usually loaded with hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide. There's a reason why interior attack teams never go in without their BA sets.
    • Further, at one point he charges into a well-involved structure with Brian in tow to attempt a rescue. While it's true that search and rescue teams will usually enter a building first to make sure it is evacuated before they start spraying water everywhere, the cold fact is that no Battalion Chief worth anything would have sent an S&R team into that inferno without any backup at all, and his charging in with no BA set, no backup, into a fully involved apartment, would have gotten him killed or (if he survived) fired in Real Life.
    • Averted with Axe and Bull's funeral at the end. Real-life firefighters have commented that for a firefighter killed on duty, this is exactly how a funeral goes.
  • Asshole Victim: Seagrave, Cosgrove, and Holcomb were all part of a corrupt plan to use firemen as pawns to get rich off of real estate while several firehouses got closed down and several firemen ended up being killed due to the cuts. So it’s ok not to feel bad about their deaths.
  • Ax-Crazy: Ronald Bartel
    Shadow: What do you want to do to the world, Ronald?
    Ronald: Burn it, burn it all.
  • Benevolent Architecture: While chemical factories would have pipes, none of them are greased for sliding.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted with the second probie, Krizminski. He ignores Bull's orders and punches directly into a hot room, triggering another backdraft right in his face. He barely survives, but ends up horribly burned and disfigured.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Stephen's is very strong regarding Brian, though the latter doesn't realize it and thinks his brother is just giving him a hard time and being unfair to him. The reason Stephen doesn't want Brian to be a firefighter is not due to lack of belief in his brother but because he's afraid that the fire will get him. It's especially clear in Brian's first fire, when Stephen is visibly shaken when Brian is nowhere to be found, and his reaction afterward.
    Stephen: I told you to stay right be-fucking-side me, Brian!
  • Big "NO!": Brian when he sees Bull and "Axe" Adcox fall. Adcox hits a barrel on the way down and dies instantly. Bull ends up half-impaled on wreckage; he survives the fall but dies on the way to the hospital.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Brian decides to remain a firefighter, Swayzak's political career is likely over, and the arsons are over. But Bull and Adcox are dead, Brian’s girlfriend left him, and as the ending indicates, there are going to be plenty more fires and arsons.
  • Break Them by Talking: Donald Sutherland's movie-stealing scene.
  • Breakfast in Bed: Played for Laughs. Little Sean tells his mother, Janet, to go back to bed because he's making her breakfast in bed, as he pours a jar of raspberry jam into a skillet full of eggs... and broken eggshells.
  • Brick Joke: At the beginning of the movie, Brian and Stephen mention using cases of scotch to bribe Chief Fitzgerald to affect Brian's station assignment. Later, we get to see Chief Fitzgerald's retirement party.
  • The Cameo: Clint Howard as Ricco the coroner.
  • Consulting a Convicted Killer: Brian approaches an imprisoned serial arsonist, Ronald Bartel, when in need of assistance in finding the missing links between a string of recent fires that seem to be connected.
  • Cowboy Cop: Stephen as a firefighter. Deconstructed as it hurts his career and relationships more than anything else, and gets Tim badly burned.
  • Cutting Corners: Swayzak's plan to get more money for him and his businessmen allies (who are also helping him with his election) involves getting rid of firehouses that, according to him, are superfluous for what a city like Chicago needs and would be more useful as community services. The fact that he's gambling with people's lives (and fellow firemen's lives in specific) because of the severe cut-down on response capabilities that this creates is the main reason why "Ax" Adcox goes into his Kill It with Fire Roaring Rampage of Revenge. The consequences are shown in a deleted scene in which Engine 17 visits the widow and children of a firefighter who died in the line of duty.
  • Dead Hat Shot: Stephen and Brian's father's helmet is blown clear of the explosion that kills him; a LIFE magazine photographer gets a picture of Brian holding the helmet, right after his father's death.
  • Digging Yourself Deeper: Swayzak meets with Rimgale at one point, and Swayzak name drops the name of the third victim, Holcomb...when the third victim's name hadn't even been released, tipping Rimgale off that something's not right.
  • Emergency Services: The Chicago Fire Department is the main one shown in the film. The Chicago Police Department is a distant second.
  • Energy Beings: Sorta. Both Bartel and Rimgale describe the fire as an animal and as a sentient predator as a way to understand how it behaves. This is entirely Rule of Cool and in no way realistic.
  • Expy: Ronald Bartel is essentially Hannibal Lecter as a pyromaniac.
  • Face Your Fears: Having watched his father burn to death as a child, Brian is afraid of fire. He nonetheless attends the academy at one point, before his fears get the better of him and he drops out. The second time around he's determined to follow in his father's (and brother's) footsteps and become a fireman, and he does graduate ppl from the academy, but he is visibly scared of the fire still. It's not until the end, when Stephen is badly hurt and needs help, that he faces his fears and goes up against the fire.
  • Firefighter Arsonist: Brian McCaffrey and arson investigator Donald "Shadow" Rimgale team up to investigate several suspicious fires that resulted in backdrafts which killed several city officials and businessmen. It eventually turns out that veteran firefighter John "Axe" Adcox is responsible. Having discovered that Alderman Swayzak and his associates have been shutting down numerous fire stations, using fabricated reports to claim they are unneeded, so that he can award lucrative contracts to his business supporters and pave his way into the mayor's office, endangering the lives of numerous civilians and firefighters (and costing at least three of the former and unspecified numbers of the latter), he is now on the warpath after everyone responsible.
  • Following in Relative's Footsteps: The movie begins with the protagonist's father, who is a fireman, dying in a fire. Despite becoming terrified of fire as a result, Brian's determined to overcome this and grow up to be a fireman like his father. His older brother Stephen did too, becoming the commander of a fire station, becoming very protective of Brian when he joins so he won't die like their dad.
  • For the Evulz: Ronald Barlet set some fires for money (insurance fraud), while at the same time his real motive always was just how fun he finds starting them, saying that he would burn the world if it was possible.
  • Government Conspiracy: A local one; Swayzak made several backdoor deals with local businessmen (that included a doctored manpower study) to shut down firehouses across the city and convert them into community centers, with lucrative construction contracts awarded to the conspirators' shell company for work that is never done.
  • Halloween Episode: The sequel is set during Halloween.
  • Heroic BSoD: Brian, when Stephen goes into a burning apartment to find the child left behind there. Having watched his father die in a fire, and subsequently developed a fear of fire that he struggles to overcome throughout the movie, his fears get the better of him when he believes his brother has fallen victim to the fire as well. All he can do is sit there and cry until Stephen emerges with the child in his arms. Then Stephen has one when he realizes that he'd been responsible for Tim's horrific burns.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • Stephen and Brian's father sacrifices himself throwing Adcox clear of a gas explosion, setting the plot in motion. Bull's death in a chemical plant, confronting Adcox, is ultimately pointless...but rescuing the mortally wounded Bull finally forces his brother to grow the beard and become a full-fledged firefighter.
    • Adcox telling Bull to let him fall in so that Bull might save himself. Bull's answer: "You go, we go!"
  • I'm Cold... So Cold...: Bull says the "I feel so tired" variant as his last words.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Swayzak mentions Holcomb as one of the arson victims, before Rimgale has the chance to tell him. Then Swayzak himself is targeted, because he was in on the same kickback scheme as Holcomb and the other victims.
  • Internal Reveal: In the sequel, Brian tells Stephen's son Sean about Adcox being the arsonist.
  • It Can Think: Bull, Bartel, Shadow, and Brian all believe that fire is a living thing and has a mind of its own. Slightly averted in that they also know that a fire needs a variety of elements to be put in place by its initiator if it's to be used as an assassination weapon, so the place doesn't burn to the ground before it kills the target.
  • Knight Templar: Adcox. He specifically goes after Swayzak's cronies in the firehouse closing scheme, and sets the fires up so the victims trigger backdrafts; once they explode, they blow themselves out, minimizing risk to firefighters. Unfortunately, in a high rise fire, there was another set of doors that held his backdraft in, and Bull's probie didn't listen...
  • Like a Son to Me: Downplayed, but references are occasionally made to Adcox having stepped up however he could to help raise the McCaffrey boys after their father was killed.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: An explosion throws Rimgale backward into an iron fence. One of the decorative spikes goes into his back and comes out through his shoulder. His reaction is a deadpan:
    "Kid? I think I got a problem."
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The barrage of assassinations via backdraft fires, ironic in context, with a high chance of being fatal, the evidence is mostly destroyed and need a good arson investigator for it to be found, and self-contained as long as firefighters arrive in time.
  • Making Love in All the Wrong Places: Brian and Jennifer have sex on top of a fire truck in his station. They're still up there when a call comes and the truck drives off as Brian hastily dresses. Later her bra and panties are found caught on a fire hose when it's unrolled for use as she couldn't retrieve them.
  • Meaningful Echo: 'You go, we go.'
    • "You see that glow flashing in the corner of your eye?"
    • "You're doing it wrong!"
  • Meaningful Funeral:
    • Axe and Bull's funeral at the end.
    • The procession before the actual funeral. Headed by the Chicago Emerald Society Marching Band in full Scottish/Irish regalia playing 'Balmoral' on bagpipes and drums, then two fire trucks converted to hearses carrying the caskets with the crew members of Engine/Ladder Company 17 in dress uniform marching alongside, then the family members of the fallen firefighters walking after the fire trucks, then the senior commanders of the Chicago Fire Department and hundreds of firefighters in dress uniform marching after that.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The prologue shows Brian and Stephen as kids in 1971 when they witness the death of their father.
  • Mood Whiplash: The opening; Brian as a child goes along to one of his father's responses, an apartment fire that seems mostly smoldering (all smoke). Everything is all upbeat and routine until his father realizes there's a leaking gas line, and Adcox just accidentally exposed it to the fire. He throws Adcox out of the room just before the explosion consumes him, with Brian watching it all. The photo of him holding his father's burned helmet, looking up at the inferno, follows him right through adulthood (see Old Shame below).
  • Naïve Newcomer: Both Brian and Tim as probies.
  • Nausea Fuel: The burned bodies of the victims, especially during the morgue scene. Not helped when the body Brian is holding expelled some gas after being handled.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: Part of the firefighters' code. "You go, we go."
  • Old Shame: In-universe example - the picture of Brian at his father's death continues to follow him years later.
  • Parking Payback: A car is parked in front of a fire hydrant. The firefighters take a certain glee in smashing the car's windows so they can thread the hose through to the hydrant, as is their legal right.
  • Pyromaniac: Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland), a serial arsonist who's admitted that he loves starting fires (calling ones like himself "sparks") and would burn the world if he could.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Firefighter John "Axe" Adcox goes from fighting Bull with fire axes in the middle of a fire to "kid, let me go, I don't want you to die with me" while dangling over a steep drop with only Bull's grip keeping him from falling at the climax. Bull and Adcox end up falling together and Ax dies on impact, earning a Treachery Cover Up and a full-honors burial.
  • Revealing Injury: Brian ends up confronting the masked arsonist as he's attempting to flee the scene of a fire that he's set, and in the scuffle, the arsonist suffers a burn from an electrical socket. Later on, Brian is able to identify the unmasked arsonist through the distinctive burn mark it left.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!:
    • Stephen is an excellent firefighter, but he has a rather reckless and lax attitude to procedure and the rules, never wearing his mask, never waiting for his hose teams, always going head-on into even the worst blazes, etc.
    • Deconstructed when two of his firefighters even complain about his recklessness, one of them nearly dies during Brian's first fire, and Stephen admits that his headstrong leadership is making the team lose confidence in him. Ultimately, his reckless attitude rubs off on one of his probationary firefighters with disastrous consequences; Probie Tim, Brian's best friend, is horrifically injured by a backdraft after not checking a door properly, and Adcox and Brian (not unfairly) blame Stephen. Although in light of Adcox being the one who actually set the fire, his condemnation is more than a little hypocritical. The backlash costs Stephen his marriage, with his wife leaving him to protect his son.
    • To Axe’s credit though, the burning of Tim was an accident.
  • Sleazy Politician: Alderman Swayzak, following a great Chicago tradition; he's preparing to run for mayor, and using firefighters as a political hobbyhorse to ride into higher office.
  • Suddenly Shouting: After Brian's first fire, Steven finds him catching his breath outside. Worried sick about his little brother after they got separated inside, Bull initially asks if he's okay in a nervous tone before composing himself to berate him for not following orders. When Brian tries to argue, Steven's voice cracks and tears well up in his eyes as he screams, "I told you to stay right be-FUCKIN'-side me, Brian!!!"
  • Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome: This happens to Brian in the sequel via a bomb.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Adcox murdered Swayzak's cronies out of anger that the alderman was gambling with firefighter's lives for monetary and political gain, and to try and save firefighter lives by stopping further closings.
  • 10-Minute Retirement: Brian, finally driven from Engine 17 into a desk job, rejoins it as a full-fledged firefighter after Stephen is killed.
  • Treachery Cover Up: Adcox is the arsonist that has killed multiple people around Chicago as revenge for them risking the lives of firefighters in a real estate scam and dies in the climactic fire. Stephen dies without telling anybody else in his squad, Brian never tells anybody else either at Stephen's request, and Adcox is given a burial with full honors by his fellow firemen. Stephen's reason for asking Brian to stay quiet is that with Adcox dead, the only thing telling the truth will accomplish is bad PR for the CFD
  • Training from Hell: Stephen singles Brian out through putting him through one of these, and it's implied that he's trying to force Brian to quit. He succeeds at first, as Brian moves to Shadow's investigative office and a desk job. Ultimately, though, Brian grows the beard and rejoins Engine 17 after his brother's death.
  • Truth in Television: The funeral at the end of the movie. Nearly all of the hundreds of extras in dress uniforms in the procession and at the interment were real firefighters from Chicago and the surrounding area who turned out for the event as they would for a real funeral. The bagpipers in the lead were the actual Pipe & Drum Corps of the Chicago FD Emerald Society. Firefighters generally agree that the funeral was the only part of the movie that was 100% realistic.
  • Unflinching Walk: When Brian realizes the arsonist is Adcox, he walks out of the shower straight toward Brian without saying a word, only stopping on the way out of the locker room to glare at Brian before getting ready for the call.