Backdraft is overlong, ridiculously melodramatic, and the plot contrivances are dumb even for a Ron Howard film. But damn does it ever look good, and the special (practical) effects look revolutionary some 30+ years later.
The story follows two brothers, Stephen (Kurt Russell) and Brian (William Baldwin) McCaffrey, and their trials and tribulations as Chicago firefighters. Stephen, the oldest, took up the family tradition to become a lifelong firefighter. He’s the type of guy who runs right into a fire, eschewing protective gear like oxygen masks to be the first in the building, to be the hero. I swear he’d fight fire with his bare fists if that were even possible. Brian, who saw his father die in a fire as a little boy, dropped out of the training program his first go-around and spent many years wandering about doing odd jobs. But as the film begins, he’s completed his training and is assigned to his brother’s firehouse as a rookie or probie. The brothers love each other, but they constantly bicker and fight. This relationship is the central conflict of the film.
It’s also boring as hell. Nothing they say or do hasn’t been seen in a million other films or could be seen right now if you turned on the television to any random channel. It doesn’t help that Kurt Russell is doing one of his worst performances. William Baldwin isn’t any better, but one doesn’t expect much from the boring Baldwin
They both are trying to repair broken relationships with women. Stephen’s wife (portrayed by Rebecca DeMornay, who gives more emotional depth than the script gives her) has left him. He was more in love with his job than with her, and she lived in constant fear he’d not come home some night, lost in a fire. Brian’s former girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh, also giving us more than she’s required to do by the script) is now working for a powerful alderman (J.T. Walsh) who (and I don’t consider this a spoiler as anyone who has seen at least ten movies before would be able to suss this out) becomes the film’s villain.
All of this would be an interminable bore, except that the actual firefighting is quite thrilling. Ron Howard and his team of stunt coordinators used real fire and explosions to create several setpieces that are stunning in their power and beauty. This is especially true in this day and age when you just know that were it to be remade all of that would be nothing but CGI sludge. The film turns the fire into a character (and it gives a better performance than Kurt Russell) that has its own desires and does what it wants.
Right at the halfway point, Brian quits the firehouse and begins working for Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro), a fire inspector whose job entails determining how a fire started and if it was arson. He’s working on a couple of cases in which the backdraft immediately killed two people with a massive explosion whose force then immediately blows the fire out. That could only be produced by someone who knows a lot about fire.
Suddenly, the film is a murder mystery, but there isn’t enough time left for the script to do much with it, leaving us with two limp halves that never give us more than standard cinematic cliches. But oh, those fire scenes make it all worth watching.
Extras on this Remastered Edition include an introduction by Ron Howard, deleted scenes, and several featurettes about the making of the film, the stunts, the fires, and real-life stories of firemen.