When Backdraft arrived in theaters during the summer of 1991, Ron Howard was still a relatively new director. This was long before his multiple Oscar nominations (and win for A Beautiful Mind in 2001). At the time, he was best known for the light comedies Splash (1982) and Parenthood (1989), as well as the science-fiction drama Cocoon (1985). Backdraft found him expanding into Steven Spielberg territory with an effects-driven action/adventure movie. He wasn’t quite ready for it.
Making its debut on Blu-ray, I revisited Backdraft for the first time since seeing it in theaters. My memories of the film were fond, though I had forgotten most of the plot details. Basically, the story focuses on the McCaffrey brothers played by Kurt Russell and William Baldwin. Their firefighter dad (also portrayed by Russell) died on the job when both boys were very young. The brothers grew up attempting to follow in their father’s footsteps, with Russell’s Stephen being more successful. Brian, as played by Baldwin, is considerably younger and has only recently become a probationary fireman.
Though the film actually pokes a bit of much needed fun at its own earnestness, the overall emotional effect never seems genuine. Both McCaffrey brothers are given exceedingly perfunctory romantic interests. Both Rebecca De Mornay and Jennifer Jason Leigh are given thankless roles that merely add female presence to the otherwise all-male cast. De Mornay plays Stephen’s estranged wife. Leigh is Brian’s former classmate in high school. They begin dating, but more importantly she works in city hall. The romance storylines go nowhere, but at least Leigh helps uncover some bad deeds going on in high places.
Those bad deeds are what makes the plot mildly interesting. Despite all the kitchen sink drama Backdraft is, at its core, an old-fashioned political cover-up story. A series of suspected arson-related fires has the Chicago fire department frustrated. After Brian washes out as a fireman, he is reassigned to assist fire investigator Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro) in uncovering the mystery behind the deadly fires. A whole lot of plot is unleashed over a relatively brief portion of the film’s excessive two hour and seventeen minute running time.
The whole affair becomes muddled and difficult to follow at times. The sibling rivalry aspect is not incorporated very well into the political shenanigans. De Niro makes the most of his underwritten role, making Rimgale believable as a man who considers fire a living organism. Donald Sutherland turns up in a few creepy scenes as a Hannibal Lector-type pyromaniac named Ronald. Rimgale uses Ronald as a quasi-consultant when trying to determine the methods used by particularly crafty arsons.
It’s a shame that De Niro and Sutherland were not the stars of the movie, as their characters have so much more potential than we see in the finished film. Instead, the filmmakers offer the emotionally hollow story of the McCaffrey brothers. I haven’t even mentioned Jason Gedrick as another rookie firefighter, Scott Glenn as a veteran who served alongside the senior McCaffrey, or J.T. Walsh as a shady Chicago City Councilman. The story desperately needed to be streamlined. At least the segments with the firemen in action are still exciting.
From a technical standpoint, Backdraft on Blu-ray leaves very little to complain about. The 1080p transfer, framed at 2.35:1, looks quite impressive for a twenty-year-old movie. The obvious highlights are the fire-related scenes, with the orange and red flames appearing bold and realistic. The film’s overall drab color scheme renders most of the non-action scenes a bit ordinary, but fine detail remains strong. Grain is minimal, but enough is present to keep the film looking natural. A few a minor flaws in the source print are visible, such as a white or black speck, but these are far and few between.
The real treat in this high definition presentation is the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix. Music and dialogue are crisp throughout, though occasionally some of the speech seems a bit low in the mix. Hans Zimmer’s cornball score swells to appropriate volume during the supposedly emotional scenes. The action sequences sound so powerful, they temporarily made me forget about the general hokiness of the movie itself.
In fact, the fire-fighting scenes are what makes this Blu-ray something to show off to friends. The surround effects are extremely immersive, with every crackle and pop jumping out from every speaker. Bass levels literally boom from the subwoofer, especially during the most explosive scenes. The well balanced cacophony of sound puts the viewer right in the middle of the fire, resulting in a sonically satisfying experience.
Most of the extras are carried over from the previous “Anniversary Edition” released on DVD in 2006. As such they are presented in standard definition. Gluttons for punishment will thrill to the nearly forty-five minutes of deleted scenes, imagining what a three-hour Backdraft might have been like. The series of five featurettes, each running approximately ten to twenty minutes, provide a nice exploration of the film’s production. The best stuff, no surprise, concerns the creation of the fire effects.
Backdraft on Blu-ray is an impressive display of the format’s capabilities, especially from a sonic perspective. But no level of technical excellence can hide the lackluster storytelling. The fiery action scenes made this a summer hit twenty years ago. All these years later, they remain the primary reason to invest time and money in revisiting the film.