Released in 1991, Backdraft may be director Ron Howard‘s most underrated film. Starring William Baldwin and Kurt Russell as estranged brothers and firefighters, the script by Gregory Widen (mostly known for his ties to the Highlander and Prophecy franchises) deals with several themes including family dysfunction, a mystery concerning a rash of unexplained arson, and the younger McCaffrey brother’s (Baldwin) quest to prove himself in the line of work that killed his father and consumes his older brother to the point it cost him his marriage.
Despite featuring Howard’s weakest leading man, Backdraft has held up well over two decades and the scenes of characters both fighting fire and discussing it remain its biggest strengths. Russell and Baldwin sell the contentious older/younger brother dynamic and the backstory of Brian’s historic lack of direction also explains his older brother’s attitude towards his new career.
The film has a wealth of supporting roles such as the other firefighters of 17 Division (Scott Glenn, Jason Gedrick, Anthony Mockus Sr., Jack McGee, Juan Ramírez, Kevin Casey) and love interests (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay) for both McCaffrey brothers. The two most important supporting roles are the arson investigator (Robert De Niro) and incarcerated firebug (Donald Sutherland) who help the younger brother solve the mystery of the mysterious fires.
The film isn’t perfect as neither love story leads anywhere all that interesting other than to inform each brother’s issues. The mystery involving the fires dominates the film’s second-half, giving DeNiro much more screentime but limiting the further development of the Brian/Stephen dynamic. The late twist as to the identity of the arsonist works, but also leads to action-packed (if somewhat cheesy) final action scene inside a burning building.
I’m not sure what it is about Chicago firefighters or New York cops, but each formula has proven to deliver strong stories over the years (and quite a few forgettable ones as well). Nominated for visual effects and sound, the look and feel of the film, especially during the fires, still holds up well and the movie is worth checking out for these scenes alone. Howard also takes his time with life inside the firehouse and the camaraderie of the men who, although don’t get as much time on-camera as our leads, play important roles in the movie’s arc.
The single-disc 1990s Best of the Decade Edition may lack some of the extras of the previously released Anniversary Edition but it does include digital and Ultraviolet copies of the movie.
[Universal Studios, $14.98]