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The condemned: Backdraft 2 (2019)

The plot: First, take a moment. Have you seen the film Backdraft? It came out in 1991, almost 30 years ago, and you’d be forgiven for forgetting it even if you had seen it. Starring Kurt Russell and William Baldwin, and directed by Ron Howard, it was massive hit upon its release. (Adjusted for inflation, it made well over $200 million. So, like, Pixar amounts of cash.) The very definition of middlebrow Hollywood spectacle, it told an open-and-shut story about firefighters in Chicago, painted in broad strokes. No one would’ve ever looked at it and thought, “Oh, yeah, I can see where the sequel would go.” And yet, three decades later, here we are, back for more dramatic shots of people leaping away from fire. (Or better yet, failing to leap in time, which is really the whole point of a movie where fire is basically the main character, no? I mean, unless you saw Twister and thought, “Man, too many folks getting sucked up by tornadoes for my taste.”)

The original was about a pair of brothers who both become firefighters in the same Chicago station. The elder, Lt. Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey (Russell) is the kind of firefighter who probably only exists in movies—doesn’t play by the rules, is a “loose cannon” who ignores safety procedures, etc. etc. His little brother, Brian (Baldwin), has always been in his shadow. Their eldest coworker, John Adcox (Scott Glenn) became their father figure after their own dad died in a—can you guess?—fire. Following a series of arsons, Brian, with the help of a seasoned arson investigator (Robert De Niro—I know!), uses the aid of a brilliant imprisoned arsonist (Donald Sutherland) to realize a firefighter is behind the crimes. Eventually, it’s revealed that Adcox is the villain, and Stephen dies after confronting Adcox with the truth—though not before making Brian promise he would never reveal what really happened, in the interest of protecting the reputation of their fellow firefighters, or some bullshit like that.

That’s a lot of stupid and extraneous background information that Backdraft 2 nevertheless assumes you’ll be familiar with, to the point where casually dropped names like “Adcox” are supposed to mean something to the viewer. Still, for being a wholly gratuitous sequel nobody was asking for (and certainly past the sell-by date by any rational assessment), this movie doubles down on plot in a big way. We pick up an unknown number of years later, with Bull’s son, Sean (Joe Anderson), as an arson investigator (or one of the “firemen with handcuffs,” as he says) who prides himself on clearing more arson cases than anyone else. The cause of his success? He’s got one of those zen spiritual bonds with fire, the kind of thing Hollywood movies always make up when they need a reason for a character to be especially good at their job.

But because this is also a movie, Sean’s got a real problem with authority, see? He pushes everyone away and has no interest in the firefighter camaraderie that goes with the job. So naturally, he’s less than thrilled when he’s assigned a new trainee (Alisha Bailey) just as they undercover a new arson case in which a backdraft (they said the title!) caused the death of five trick-or-treating neighborhood kids. Pretty soon, the case has become unnecessarily convoluted, to the point that eventually it’s revealed the Department Of Defense is investigating the homeowners of the arson site for possible international criminal conspiracy to sell a new missile system to hostile foreign powers (don’t ask). By then, you’re basically just rolling with the narrative punches as the rabbit hole of needless complexity deepens, including multiple feints to a psychologically damaging childhood fire, a romantic subplot that involves literally two scenes and yet finds the movie closing on the love story between Sean and the woman, and more. Hell, there’s even a possibly nefarious ATF/arson investigator to be Sean’s nemesis. Remember that hilarious thing in Twister where there was a team of evil storm chasers in competition with our heroes, and you knew they were evil because they dressed in all black? It’s kind of like that.

Essentially, if you were told to come up with a bunch of ways to do a 30-years-later sequel to Backdraft, you’ve got better-than-likely odds at least two of your ideas have ended up in this weirdly overstuffed movie. The film plays like an executive saw a whiteboard full of different possible plots for the movie, and rather than selecting one, said, “Fuck it, let’s do all of them.” The ending of the film has Sean confronting a single Russian arsonist who’s trying to smuggle a missile out of the country, and it feels totally undercooked, like they realized they didn’t have the budget to film the actual climax and clear up all these plot points, so they just pulled the plug after the second-to-last set piece.

Over-the-top box copy: “An all-new movie from the filmmakers of Backdraft.” That’s right, it’s got new actors, new scenes, everything! But don’t worry, some people from the first are tangentially involved with this one, too.

The theoretically heavenly talent: Joe Anderson is actually a fairly reliable presence in B-movies, capable of adding gravitas or charm to the right project, and he does his level best to sell the silliness of this movie’s many conceits with a straight face. And surprising no one, William Baldwin was able to clear his busy schedule to make time for the half-dozen or so scenes he’s in. Really, the big get here is Donald Sutherland, who was brought in for what I can’t imagine was more than a day or two, in order to reprise his role as the goofy arsonist version of Hannibal Lecter, all wild eyes and wackadoo energy. Both times he’s on screen, he tricks you into thinking this is a high-quality product, mostly because he’s obviously having a total blast chewing what little scenery the budget permitted to surround him with.

The execution: Honestly, with the possible exception of The Quake, this is the most competent film we’ve covered in Home Video Hell in years. Not good, necessarily, but competent as all get-out. It looks, moves, and feels like a standard-issue Hollywood thriller, straight out of the Save The Cat! playbook. It’s dumb, but in a funny way; the action is efficiently staged; all the acting is good enough, for the most part (we’ll get to Baldwin in a second); and it provides a beginning, middle, and end, with a clear set of stakes and character motivations. Hey, that’s a movie!

In another world, Anderson could have lucked into a more high-profile career, as he exudes the kind of relatable-tough-guy charisma on which action movies are born. The opening scene has one of the stupidest exchanges of the whole film, but Anderson makes you laugh with it, not at is, thanks to his commitment to heightening the absurdity. He knows this is dumb, but he’s going to give you your money’s worth. He’s introduced with an old-school hardbitten gumshoe voice-over in the first-person, a conceit Backdraft 2 returns to maybe three more times, which isn’t really enough to justify why it’s there. After determining that what looks like a freak accident death by fire was actually homicide, he goes up and confronts the perpetrator, which leads to this very excellent back-and-forth that smash-cuts into the title:

The specifics of the plot start off straightforward enough, but quickly spiral into lunacy. Sean and his trainee investigate the fire that killed the trick-or-treaters, and soon determine that the owners of the house had a generous contract with the Department Of Defense to make missiles. They discover a similar fire was set in the factory where the missile prototype was stored, and before you can say “this seems like an awfully big case for an isolated member of the Chicago Fire Department to be investigating,” it turns even more convoluted, far beyond any reasonable plotting. It turns out Sean’s nemesis arson investigator at the ATF was the one who investigated the factory fire, and got it wrong. The real prototype was stolen by the wife of the guy who brokered the illicit arms deal; she wanted immunity, they got caught before she could turn it over, and blah blah blah—I could go on, but it’s wildly unnecessary. If only the movie could’ve gotten that note.

Maybe half of these multifarious plot threads get resolved? The movie sets up a bunch of dominoes, and then proceeds to knock over half of them, with all the conviction of a screenwriter who’s been given a lot of studio notes and perhaps unavoidably lost the thread somewhere along the way. One element that gets its due treatment is Baldwin’s character, who takes a break halfway through the film to finally tell Sean how his dad died, something he’d apparently been keeping a secret all these years, even though it has destroyed their family and pushed Sean away from everyone he was ever close to. Nice work, Billy Baldwin’s character! Anyway, he redeems himself by sacrificing his life to save Sean from a fire bomb that gets planted underneath Sean’s bed, but not before this wonderful bit of acting, where Baldwin’s concerned uncle arrives at a fire where Sean is dangling from a collapsing building, just in time to watch as his nephew gets blown off a pipe several stories in the air and flung across a concrete lot to probably death, and has an emotional reaction that could only be described as, “Hmm, maybe I should get Chipotle for dinner tonight.”

But I don’t want to be too churlish. This movie has some fun stuff—in particular, crazy Sutherland gets to have a grand old time delivering bonkers dialogue about how people like Sean and himself have a relationship with fire that others can’t get. They “understand the dragon,” in his words. That leads to this late-film exchange where Sutherland, going delightfully daffy, delivers the requisite crazed-villain speech to the hero about how we’re not so different, you and I, but in a far more entertaining manner than many films of this ilk:

Additionally, this movie posits the existence of a world in which all the arsonists around town know each other, and have rules and regulations not unlike the hit-men of John Wick’s universe. We know this thanks to a goofball sequence where Sean and his trainee show up at the scene of another blaze, this time in an empty factory, and Sean instantly says, “I know this guy,” and looks around until he finds the arsonist, watching his handiwork unfold. A short chase scene later, and the arsonist is confessing his knowledge of the child-killing arson job, delivering an indignant speech about how he would’ve never set that kind of fire, because he has ethics, man.

This is the kind of brainless but trashily enjoyable film that would suit the bill when you’re looking for something to watch hangover on a lazy Sunday afternoon, where you can vaguely follow along with the plot contortions and take in the scenes of fires and the fighting thereof, even though there aren’t nearly enough. (Ron Howard signed off as an exec producer on this thing, so you’d think he would’ve made sure there’d be a few cool firefighting scenes.) It’s somewhat reminiscent of the dimwitted Bruce Willis boat-cop thriller Striking Distance, complete with the trainee woman sidekick, though less payoff. (Also, the film really doesn’t give a shit about her; there’s a running joke about Sean forgetting her name, but I’m not convinced it isn’t because the filmmakers couldn’t, either.) The climax plays like they ran out of money, and had to fashion a much cheaper conclusion that doesn’t address many of the plot points raised, but at least gives Sean a chance to absolutely pot-roast the bad guy with white-hot flames from a missile, instantly turning the anonymous baddie into a blackened chicken sandwich. It’s a good time:

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Seriously, how many people have fond memories of Backdraft? I’m guessing hundreds at most, and half of those are probably the cast and crew. I had forgotten all about it until this Blu-ray showed up on my desk, so let’s generously assume there are some real Draft-heads out there psyched that this movie exists. Assuming it makes even one-hundredth the impression of its progenitor, then no, it will not rise from obscurity. But hey, Backdraft 3 could also be waiting in the wings.

Damnable commentary track or special feature? Not even one of those behind-the-scenes or making-of clips that are really just a four-minute promotional reel for the film, which I would’ve assumed were a given for something of this caliber.

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About the author

Alex McLevy

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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