That said, even the wicked fire shots of Backdraft -- which feature rising towers of flame, backwards-flowing fire, and blankets of flame that slowly ripple across the floor -- are barely able to distract you from the ultimately tiresome family drama that makes up the bulk of Ron Howard's firehouse epic.
Ostensibly the movie is about an arsonist who's terrorizing Chicago. Two fireman brothers (Kurt Russell and a tragically cast William Baldwin), long estranged, end up working together to not just track down the arsonist but also to put out the frequent fires that he sets. Meanwhile, older bro has a rocky marriage and younger bro is romancing the assistant (Jennifer Jason Leigh, looking all glammed up like you've never seen her) to a bigshot Alderman. It's ultimately all padding for the action scenes, which certainly give the impression that this is one of the most dangerous movies ever photographed.
The plot is simultaneously overblown and threadbare, and Howard telegraphs who the arsonist is from an hour away (the film clocks in at well over the two-hour mark). It's a bizarre and unfortunate fact that makes Backdraft's amazing effects work seem like it's throwing pearls before swine. Even Robert De Niro and Donald Sutherland are wasted in small roles, tasked with delivering soliloquys to distract us from Baldwin's attempts to act seriously.
It's probably no coincidence that Backdraft marks the first film where Ron Howard finally turned into A Serious Director, with mixed results. His earlier films centered on comedy (Splash, Gung Ho) and fantasy (Willow). With Backdraft, the older, more serious Opie was born. Unfortunately Howard would still be finding his feet for some years to come (his next movie was the instantly forgotten Far and Away), but eventually truly great films (Apollo 13) would arrive... with even more impressive effects.
So consider Backdrafta curiosity and an important, yet flawed, step along the way to maturity for Howard. But you gotta love the fire.
Now available on a two-disc anniversary edition, the package includes an intro from an obviously oblivious Howard, deleted scenes, and a gaggle of making-of featurettes that cover everything you could possibly want to know about the making of the film.
Run time: 137 mins
In Theaters: Friday 24th May 1991
Box Office Worldwide: $152.4M
Distributed by: MCA Universal Home Video
Production compaines: Universal Pictures, Trilogy Entertainment Group, Imagine Films Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Fresh: 29 Rotten: 12
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: Gregory Widen
Starring: Kurt Russell as Dennis McCaffrey, Robert De Niro as Donald Rimgale, Donald Sutherland as Ronald Bartel, William Baldwin as Brian McCaffrey, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Jennifer Vaitkus, Scott Glenn as John 'Axe' Adcox, Rebecca De Mornay as Helen McCaffrey, Jason Gedrick as Tim Kirzminski, J. T. Walsh as Alderman Marty Swayzak, Anthony Mockus Sr. as Chief John Fitzgerald, Cedric Young as Grindle, Juan Ramírez as Ray Santos, Kevin Casey as Nightingale, Jack McGee as Schmidt, Mark Wheeler as Pengelly, Ryan Goldstein as Brian, Age 7