Backdraft: 2-Disc Anniversary Edition
October 11, 2006
Starring: Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca DeMornay, Donald Sutherland, Robert De Niro, Jason Gedrick, J.T. Walsh, Clint Howard, Jack McGee,
At the time of its release, Backdraft (1991) was regarded by some critics as an admirable if not flawed homage to the profession of firefighting. Of course, compared to the recent Ladder 49 (2004) it seems downright gritty and hard-hitting but still doesn’t hold a candle in terms of realism to television’s Rescue Me. Still, Ron Howard’s film has its heart in the right place and does boast an impressive cast. Looking back at it now, Backdraft was one of Howard’s early attempts to be taken seriously as a dramatic filmmaker and an initial bid at Oscar glory – something that would elude him until A Beautiful Mind (2001).
Backdraft is about the rivalry between two firefighting brothers – Brian McCaffrey (Baldwin) and his older brother Stephen (Russell). Brian is still haunted by the memory of seeing his father die fighting a deadly fire when he was only a little kid while Stephen followed in his dad’s footsteps and became a top notch firefighter working in the toughest (and best) company in the city. The film’s secondary storyline is a series of murders masked by fires that are being investigated by a methodical inspector (De Niro) and how this somehow ties in with an opportunistic city councilman (Walsh).
Howard’s film dutifully trots out the stereotypical characters: the long-suffering ex-wife (DeMornay), the gorgeous but otherwise unimportant love interest (Jason Leigh), the crazy killer (Sutherland), the gung-ho recruit (Gedrick) who is punished for his inexperience, the feuding brothers and so on. What Backdraft does have going for it is how it shows the camaraderie of the men in the firehouse: the good-natured hazing of the new guys, the communal meals and how they watch each other’s backs in and out of fires. It is very much a brotherhood and this film brings this out very well.
Speaking of which, the firefighting scenes are well-staged and executed, done before the proliferation of CGI and this gives these scenes a real, visceral quality. It is like the fire is another character, a living, breathing organism with a life of its own and the ability to take one as well. Howard’s camera is able to get into the thick of these fires so that there is no safe distance in which to remove oneself from the action. You’re right in there with the firefighters.
The best scene in the movie isn’t the impressively staged fires but the one between Donald Sutherland’s twitchy, crazed arsonist and De Niro’s investigator. It lasts only a few minutes but every moment between these two brilliant actors is mesmerizing and truly brings the film to life proving yet again that good acting trumps SFX and stunts every damn time. In fact, Backdraft should have focused on De Niro’s intriguing character and his intuitive knowledge of how fires work and what causes them. The screenplay hints at an interesting backstory for him and his relationship with Sutherland’s firebug. Instead, it amounts to nothing more than a subplot and a red herring of sorts.
The always reliable Kurt Russell is excellent and completely believable as a tough as nails firefighter who aggressively attacks every fire he encounters. He has that rugged physicality perfect for the role and yet he plays a deeply flawed hero – a man so dedicated to his job that he can’t keep his marriage going. He’s also an alcoholic and a hothead, starting fights with his ex’s new husband or with his brother whom he is fiercely competitive with. It’s a testimony to Russell’s skill as an actor that he is able to convincingly sell some of the clichéd dialogue that he has to say. Too bad we have to suffer through William Baldwin’s one-note performance that is the film’s biggest weak spot. He’s a pretty boy who can’t hold his own up against the likes of Russell, De Niro and Sutherland.
First and foremost, Backdraft champions firefighting as a noble profession fraught with danger. It takes an incredible amount of courage to run into a burning building and risk your life to save someone. We are clearly meant to look up to these men by the way Howard frames them and lights them in certain shots (the backlit silhouette of the iconic movie poster) with the additional use of slow motion. There is a lot to admire about this movie but ultimately its clichéd screenplay lets it down which is a shame because there is a good story in there somewhere trying to get out.
The first disc features an introduction by Ron Howard as he briefly talks about how proud he is of the movie and what else is available on this 2-disc set.
There is 43 minutes worth of deleted scenes that sheds light on Brian’s backstory — his nomadic existence, how he dropped out of the academy years ago and how he talks his way back in. There is also more footage of the mysterious arsonist plying his trade that reveals a little too much a little too early in the movie. We also get more of De Niro and Sutherland which is always a treat.
The second disc starts off with “Igniting the Story,” a featurette that traces the origins of the project as Howard and his producer Brian Grazer talk about what drew them to it. The screenwriters talk about the genesis of the screenplay while the term “backdraft” is also explained.
“Bringing Them Together: The Team” examines the casting process. Howard knew Kurt Russell from back when they were child actors and had always wanted to cast him in one of his movies. Baldwin, Glenn, Gedrick and, surprisingly, Jason Leigh (who never seemed too enthused about this project) talk about how they got involved in new interviews for this DVD.
“The Explosive Stunts” takes a look at how they pulled off the realistically rendered firefighting scenes. A lot of the actors did some of their own stunts while professional stuntmen did the more dangerous ones. These sequences were thoroughly rehearsed and tested. The highlight of this extra is Scott Glenn recounting a particularly dangerous stunt where he came very close to getting seriously burned.
“Creating the Villain: The Fire.” Howard really wanted to convey the danger of firefighting and fire and get as close to it as possible. After computer effects tests failed, the special effects guys ran all kinds of practical tests to see the various ways they could manipulate fire. Everything was planned out beforehand.
Finally, there is “Real-Life Firemen, Real-Life Stories” with actual firefighters from Station 73 in Santa Clarita, California recounting some of their own personal anecdotes and what they think of the movie. These guys really love what they do and speak passionately about it.