Starring: Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, Jason Gedrick, Donald Sutherland, Robert De Niro
Director: Ron Howard
“Backdraft” may be one of the most overrated films of the ‘90s, but as Ron Howard’s first step towards becoming a serious director, it’s quite possibly the best of its kind. That’s not saying much, really, since there are only about five other movies ever made on the topic, but when it comes down sheer entertainment value, “Backdraft” is to firefighters as “Top Gun” is to fighter pilots. At the end of the day, it’s all about the glorification of a dangerous job that most men only wish they could do, and while there’s no homoerotic volleyball scene to be found in the firefighter drama, William Baldwin and Kurt Russell’s horrendously over-the-top performances more than make up for it.
The two men star as Brian and Stephen McCaffrey (respectively), sons of a famous Chicago fireman who was killed while on the job. Twenty years later, both brothers have followed their father into the same field, but have taken completely different paths to get there. While Stephen dives headfirst into the world and builds a reputation as one of the best firefighters in the city, Brian has taken the less direct route. Drifting from job to job with no real progress, he finally accepts his fate and, upon graduating from the academy, is welcomed into the same firehouse as his older brother. It doesn’t take much pushing from Stephen before Brian finally gives up again, however, but instead of leaving the department for good, he opts to work alongside arson expert Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro), who’s currently investigating a string of fire-related crimes.
It’s at this point where the film drastically changes gears from tedious family drama to big-budget action/suspense film, and while the back story is certainly important, the second half is undeniably better – right down to the ridiculous ending where Russell and Scott Glenn (as family friend John “Axe” Adcox), prepared to face off in what’s sure to be a kickass axe duel, are engulfed by a massive warehouse fire. Oh well, I never liked either of those characters anyway. I mean, Kurt Russell as an Irish firefighter? What’s next? Gary Coleman in an Andre the Giant biopic? The rest of the cast is peppered with familiar faces, from Rebecca De Mornay and Jennifer Jason Lee (looking a lot like Anna Paquin) as the two brother’s love interests, and Jason Gedrick as one of the station’s newest probies, but none of their roles offer anything outside of a little dramatic tension.
Thankfully, the real star of the film is the fire (which contains absolutely no CGI), though it does get a run for its money from both De Niro and Donald Sutherland (as a psychotic arsonist), whose enigmatic relationship parallels that of Clarice and Hannibal Lecter from “Silence of the Lambs.” Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t deserve such a compliment. “Backdraft” is one of the most uneven films I’ve ever experienced, and while the earlier scenes are an absolute drag to sit through, the race-to-the-finish ending (no matter how clichéd it might be, unimpressive villain reveal included) is certainly worth seeing at least once. It at least makes for an entertaining drinking game, and the rules are incredibly simple: take a drink for every bad line that young Billy Baldwin delivers. Trust me, you’ll have passed out within the first ten minutes, and you’ll probably wake up just in time for the ending.
Since when did we start celebrating 15 year anniversaries? In any event, a new two-disc edition of “Backdraft” is upon us, complete with new interviews with cast/crew and an introduction by director Ron Howard. The main attraction is a four-part featurette broken down into production (“Igniting the Story”), casting (“Bringing Together the Team”), stunts (“The Explosive Stunts”) and special effects (“Cheating the Villain: The Fire”), while 43 minutes worth of deleted scenes and a short Q&A with real Chicago firemen (“Real-Life Fireman, Real-Life Stories”) also appear.