Backdraft (1991) 1Grade (A)

One of the classic action-thrillers of the 90’s with a strong cast, excellent writing and a skillful use of pyrotechnics that could rival today’s computer generated imagery.

Rookie fireman Brian McCaffrey (Baldwin) will find his adjustment to a new career far from easy as he discovers he will be assigned to the toughest unit in the Chicago Fire Department. To make things more difficult the leader of this crew of veteran firefighters is his impossible to please older brother Stephen (Russell). A deep family history will hinder their ability to work together, and soon Brian finds himself assigned to the investigation division under the supervision of the equally hard to impress, Donald (De Niro), as they try and track down an arsonist that is wreaking havoc across the city.

This was one of the memorable films of the 90’s for its wide-range of excellence in many of the film-making elements. From the special-effects being toned down in place of old fashioned stunt-work, practical effects, great acting by the cast, strong characters developed in the writing phase of this project, and the overall structure of the well rounded story-line, there are not many things to complain about with this Ron Howard film written by Gregory Widen.

The story-line is compelling from the jump, and throughout the two-hour run-time it takes you on a journey of mystery, romance, adrenaline pumping action, and too many thrills to count. This is leaving out the drama of the family subplot and the collection of laughs delivered by this script as well. I do not claim to know much about the life of a fireman but this film seemed to be a realistic portrayal of the career, with its many narrowing clashes with death, and the impact in can have on ones family and personal life.

The detail in the script enables two main plots as well as a few subplots to all weave together seamlessly as the first-act of the film builds the backdrop of the family structure. Something that leads perfectly into the second-act as Brian (Baldwin) is let loose into the world of a fireman under the close watch of his over protective, and from all appearances, not too supportive brother Stephen (Russell). Hints of an ongoing series of fires are eluded to throughout until this area of the script takes over in the third-act as Robert De Niro makes his presence known as the mysterious fire investigator.

William Baldwin, despite his goofy expressions and often puzzled demeanor, was not enough to hinder his performance, or the film. He was plausible in the role and showed amazing chemistry with Kurt Russell who was head and shoulders above the rest with his performance, seeming to portray every scene he needed with a flawless realism.

Backdraft (1991) 3

The collection of side characters were also very good in their roles, led by veteran Robert De Niro who could have used some more time in this film given the enjoyment I took from his performance. Donald Sutherland was excellent, and creepy as intended in his small role as well. There were solid additions from Rebecca De Mornay, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Scott Glenn in particular, who shined in his role as the tough-as-nails fireman. The cast as a whole showed an excellent chemistry with one another that made the many dramatic moments even more intense as the connection to their characters pulls you in to their situations.

No fireman movie would be complete without fire, and this film, even more than the strong story and enjoyable cast performances, is most memorable for its heart-pumping fire-sequences. This one delivered explosions and chaotic fires in various sized buildings and to this day the stunk-work put into making these inferno’s was nothing short of excellent. With the creative use of ‘backdrafts’ and fire climbing the walls and ceilings, the ominous feel the filmmakers give the fire make it a true antagonist in the story. Watching the fire move about the backdrops gives it a life with clearly evil intentions as the fireman face it head on.

Overall this is a must-see for anyone who missed this blockbuster from the summer of ’91. It has just about everything you could want from a movie that promises to take you on an emotion filled adventure. The pace is fluid and with all the things going on in this script, there is really never a dull moment. All these years later this film is still as enjoyable as it was back then, and still goes down as one of the all-time great firefighter movies.

Time: 137 min

MPAA Rating: R (For language and a scene of sensuality)