Backdraft delves into the lives of Chicago firefighters with some familiar family drama to keep things going.
Just seven years old, Brian McCaffrey is a frequent guest at his father's fire station along with his older brother, Stephen. On one fire call though, their dad is killed in a blast. Some 20 years later, Stephen (Kurt Russell, who also plays the Dad...albeit briefly) has followed in his dad's footsteps, becoming a respected lieutenant at one of Chicago's most respected stations. Station 17 has a couple new fireman to fit into the mix, Stephen's brother, Brian (William Baldwin), who did his best to avoid a firefighting career for years only to return to what his family knows best. The brothers have drifted apart over the years, both of them holding grudges that go back for years to when their dad died. With a career that hinges on life and death moments every single day, they have to learn to work together and put their differences aside. Meanwhile, an arsonist is starting fires all over Chicago with two dead already. Who is the arsonist? Does he have a different intention?
I was just six when this movie came out back in 1991. I remember my parents watching it at some point, and enjoying it. For me, there's a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s where because of my age, I just didn't see a lot of movies and never really caught up with them. From director Ron Howard, 'Backdraft' is a big one on that list. A box office success that picked up positive reviews while becoming a fan favorite, it's a solid, entertaining movie. It was filmed on location in Chicago -- never a bad thing -- and gives the developing story an authentic aura hanging in the air. It's not always familiar locations, "known" spots, but that works too in creating a grittier, more authentic feel. In the end, it is a good movie, even really good, that isn't quite great. Nothing wrong with that, but I didn't come away completely blown away like some reviews made it out to be.
The strongest aspect of the movie is one that treads a fine line. This is a film interested in showing the heroic actions of not only Chicago firefighters, but firefighters in general. It also delves into their personal lives, how the threat of horrific burns and wounds -- not to mention death -- hangs in the air with each passing fire. At times, the story gets a little too soap opera-esque, a little too familiar in terms of family issues and brotherly conflict. Still, the firefighting sequences are pretty insane. Firefighters watching the movie criticized Howard's film because these scenes were too clear, things too easily seen, but for the sake of making a movie, you can't criticize Howard there. You feel the fire, the heat, the warmth, the scorching flames nipping at your heels, blazing away at your face, with each passing sequence. Kudos in the reality department, transporting us into the fire with our firefighters. As a viewer, we get a sense of the hell that is these individuals' day jobs, avoiding too much hero worship.
A film archetype across all genres, the warring brothers formula is brought to life by Kurt Russell and Billy Baldwin. Both characters are a little too familiar, one rising above, the other not so much. Russell as Stephen gets the showier part, the gung-ho firefighter following in his father's footsteps. He's the best at what he does and isn't interested in too much career advancement. He puts out fires, wants to put out fires, and looks out for his crew. Look for Rebecca De Mornay as his wife, struggling to cope with the increasing dangers of his job, for her and for her son. Baldwin is okay as Brian, but the character just isn't interesting enough to merit much sympathy. His romantic subplot with Jennifer Jason Leigh's government assistant (a past fling/relationship) goes nowhere as well to the point their scenes become painful, especially the makeout session on a fire truck.....when the alarm goes off. Who saw that coming?!?
Two supporting parts are truly worthy of mentioning. Along with Russell's Stephen, I thought Robert De Niro has the strongest part here, playing Shadow Rimgale, a fire inspector who helps determine if fires were accidental or the works of arsonists. It's that perfectly underplayed, more low-key part that De Niro could probably do in his sleep. Donald Sutherland is perfectly creepy too as Ronald Bartel as Bartel, an imprisoned arsonist who knows Rimgale all too well and may know what's going on around the city. Also look for Scott Glenn and Jason Gedrick as fellow firefighters, J.T. Walsh playing a Chicago alderman who always has reelection on his mind.
A good, not great movie. I think it is a tad long in the tooth at 132 minutes, drifting along a little too much in the midsection before getting back to business for the finale. It is a tad cliched, too many slow motion 'Noooooooooooooo!' moments dotting the firefighting sequences. Composer Hans Zimmer's score is as solid as ever...in most scenes, sometimes reverting back to the hero worship that brings the movie down a notch. Big picture though, Backdraft has a lot going for it. An interesting story that did keep me guessing, a very solid cast, and a reveal that certainly caught me by surprise. An excellent look into the lives of Chicago firemen.
Backdraft (1991): ***/****