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.