As a tribute to firefighters everywhere, Backdraft works. As a piece of fluff that will appeal to any youngster who always wanted to be a firefighter, Backdraft works. As an entertaining and involving movie, Backdraft just doesn't cut it. After a decent run at the box office, this movie exploded (no pun intended) on home video. Well, I can't tell you if it was popular everywhere, but it certainly quickly became the must-see movie at my high school. I think, if my memory serves me correctly, that this may have been due in no small part to the reduction (removal?) of the rental windows that I remember being brought about by Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. I am only going by personal recollection here so may be completely incorrect. What is definitely correct is that this particular movie was very popular on video at Liberton High School (which, ironically, still hasn't burned to the ground, despite my fervent prayers).
The plot is standard melodrama, directed by Ron Howard and written by an ex-firefighter named Gregory Widen (who witnessed someone killed by the titular occurrence). William Baldwin (one of the many lesser talents in the Baldwin brood) plays Brian McCaffrey, a young man who finally passes the test to become a firefighter and ends up stationed alongside his big brother, Stephen 'Bull' McCaffrey (Kurt Russell). Big brother wants to look after him and he does that by working him harder than anybody else. Scott Glenn is another one of the old hands while Jason Gedrick plays the other new recruit, a young man lucky enough to not have any older brother on HIS case. On top of the tension between the two brothers there are also a worrying number of fires that seem to have been engineered, possibly, to kill certain people. Robert De Niro plays the investigator trying to find out how the fires started.
Apparently, when she read the script Jennifer Jason Leigh (who plays Jennifer Vaitkus, Brian's old flame who may be reignited) said that she wished she could play the fire because it's the best part and that really tells you all that you need to know about the movie. The fire IS the best part. When the flames are billowing around the screen the movie gets interesting. At all other times it's just a messy mix of horrible, super-cheesy lines and completely uninteresting personal drama that is all underlined by a manipulative score from Hans Zimmer.
Kurt Russell is always good to watch, as far as I'm concerned, and there's also a lot of fun to be had when De Niro is onscreen. There's also a lot of fun to be had in the moments featuring Donald Sutherland, as an imprisoned arsonist, and the always-great J. T. Walsh plays a slippery politician and is . . . . . . . . . . . . great, as always. Scott Glenn is alright, Clint Howard has a tiny, but enjoyable, role and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rebecca De Mornay both do okay with what they're given. Jason Gedrick may not be great, but the weakest link in the cast is bland, talentless William Baldwin who drags the film down with his weak "talent". A better leading man MIGHT have improved the movie ever so slightly, but it's hard to say. As the saying goes: "you can't polish a turd".
Ron Howard isn't a consistently great director, but he has made many very good movies (personally, I love Apollo 13, Parenthood and Frost/Nixon, among others) and I haven't seen a movie from him that I have completely hated. Having said that, this one is the worst I've seen from him so far.