Fifteen years ago, Ron Howard was known primarily as a comedy director (and one of my favorite sitcom characters, Richie Cunningham.) His reputation was good, but a bit lightweight. In 1991 he released Backdraft with both an impressive cast and a heavy dose of complicated action. It’s never been considered one of his best movies, and was eclipsed a few years later by the equally complicated, big cast epic, Apollo 13. However, it shouldn’t be dismissed, as the 2-disc Anniversary Edition of Backdraft makes clear. It’s a good piece of work.
Being the best firefighter movie of all time isn’t exactly a major accomplishment. The competition only really includes a couple Howie Long movies and Ladder 49. But Backdraft is clearly the standard bearer when it comes to putting a realistic portrayal of fighting fire on the big screen.
Kurt Russell and William Baldwin lead a very strong cast as Chicago firefighter brothers Stephen and Brian McCaffrey. Stephen is the long time firefighting icon of Station 17 while screw up Brian goes through a series of get-rich-quick type jobs before joining the family business (the McCafferty’s father, also played by Russell, was a legendary firefighter, killed on the job right in front of his younger son.) Stephen doesn’t trust Brian’s intentions and a lot of the movie hinges on their relationship and the tension during Brian’s probationary period. Scott Glenn, an active firefighter and friend of the boy’s father, tries to mediate without much luck.
While the McCaffrey brothers try to get along, a serial arsonist is at work in their area. The arsonist is being tracked by Fire Inspector Rimgale (Robert DeNiro) who uses psychotic firebug Ronald (Donald Sutherland) to help figure out who is setting these fires and why. DeNiro is good, as usual, although his work is very low key and Russell, Baldwin, and Glenn are given more scenery chewing to do.
In addition to the brother relationship and the arsonist case, both brothers have issues with their women. Russell is divorced from but still carries a torch for Helen (Rebecca DeMornay) and Brian tries to begin a relationship with Jennifer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) the aide to sleazy Alderman Swayzak (J.T. Walsh). The Alderman seems to know more about the arson cases then he is telling.
There are a lot of connections and information and it tends to bog the movie down. Dropping a few characters or simplifying would have been helpful. Also, a lot of the dialogue is somewhat cornball and the situations are a bit too obvious. But where the movie really shines, in addition to performances by Russell, DeNiro, Sutherland, DeMornay, and Walsh, are the amazing fire scenes. The action is really top-notch. Howard puts the actors and the audience in the middle of many complicated fires and gives a good sense of what it is like. The movie also goes a long way towards making the firefighters heroes worthy of our respect, and there is nothing wrong with that.
So the movie is a very big fish in the very small pond of fire-fighter movies. The cast is good even if the script is not always up to their talents. And you can’t help but come away feeling you’ve been through something difficult with the firefighters.
Although I haven’t seen the original Backdraft DVD, reportedly the picture quality is not great and there are no extras. So, despite the fact that the extras on this edition are not stunning, it’s a major upgrade from the previous edition. The 2.35 anamorphic widescreen looks crisp and clear and the Dolby Digital 5.1 is very impressive. This is a 2-disc set with the second disc packed with features.
The first feature is called “Igniting the Story” and covers the writing of the script by former firefighter Gregory Widen and the plans for making it into a feature film. The interviews used are both from 1991 and 2006 and there is a good amount of behind the scenes shots showing Howard directing the movie and various scenes being set up. The main actors appearing in the 2006 interviews are Baldwin, Glenn, and Jason Gedrick. Russell appears only in the 1991 footage and Ron Howard is primarily seen in 1991 footage, although a few comments from present day are also included.
The next feature, “Bringing Together the Team” is fairly long, about 20 minutes, and probably the most interesting of all the bonus items. It covers the casting of both actors and real life firefighters in the films key and supporting roles. The casting director provides most of the comments about the decision making process but there are lots of interesting comments about why certain actors were cast and who else was considered for roles like the arson investigator.
The next two features cover the stunts and how the filmmakers created the fire without the use of any computer generated effects. Ron Howard says they tested CGI fire and decided it looked too fake. Whatever other problems this movie has, it’s not with the look of the fire scenes, which are impressive and prove the decision to spend so much time on how it was done was a good one.
The last and least extra is called “Real Life Firemen, Real Life Stories.” Six fireman from Station 73 in Santa Clarita, California discuss their memories of seeing the movie in the theater and then tell some stories about their own firefighting experience. I couldn’t quite figure out why, other than cheapness, they didn’t go to Chicago and interview Chicago firefighters. The stories aren’t uninteresting, but since they don’t really connect with the movie in any way, it comes across as filler.
There are two other features, both on the same disc as the film. In a “Ron Howard Introduction,” Howard introduces the film and talks briefly about some challenges of making the complex movie. There are also approximately 40 minutes of deleted scenes. The quality of these are pretty low, very grainy and in more than a few cases, you can see the boom mikes in the top of the shot. So, a good amount of quantity, but not so great on the quality scale. The most interesting portions showed more of how Brian McCaffery ended up back in the fire department after dropping out of the academy, something that is alluded to but not presented clearly in the actual movie.
This set does not exactly make a fan of the movie jump for joy. A full length commentary by Howard and maybe some of the technical people would have been nice, but the reported upgrade in picture quality, the inclusion of deleted scenes, and a nice selection of features more than make up for it. This is certainly not a critical pick-up DVD release, but Ron Howard fans won’t go wrong adding this to their collections.