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Case Number 20470

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Backdraft (Blu-Ray)

Universal // 1991 // 138 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // January 10th, 2011

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All Rise...

Judge Mike Rubino puts on Backdraft instead of the yule log.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Backdraft: Two-Disc Special Edition (published October 10th, 2006) and The Ron Howard Spotlight Collection (published November 25th, 2008) are also available.

The Charge

"You see that flash of light in the corner of your eye? That's your career dissipation light. It just went into high gear."
Brian McCaffrey

Opening Statement

There's nothing subtle about Backdraft. There's rarely anything subtle about Ron Howard's brand of filmmaking, but this movie deserves a special distinction. It's a film that's been glossed over with the "blockbuster highlighter," turned up to 11, and nuked so long in the microwave that it bursts through its plastic wrapper. What better way to soak in all this bombast than with a high-definition Blu-ray release?

Facts of the Case

Backdraft follows the McCaffreys, two brothers working for the same Chicago fire department. There's Brian (William Baldwin, Flatliners), a wide-eyed rookie looking to prove himself, and Stephen (Kurt Russell, Escape from New York), a maverick lieutenant who thinks he's infallible in times of danger.

While these two bros duke it out amidst the engines and ladders, they're eventually forced to focus on a string of arsons plaguing the city. With investigator Donald "Shadow" Rimgale (Robert DeNiro, Goodfellas) leading the charge, and an imprisoned serial arsonist (Donald Sutherland, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) providing clues, the Brothers McCaffrey have to put aside their differences if they want to stop the burning.

The Evidence

It's hard to imagine Backdraft, at any point since its release, not being the most contrived procedural film about a branch of first responders in the subgenre. At times the movie almost feels like a (really melodramatic) parody. But Backdraft is a serious movie, with its heart firmly strapped to its sleeve.

The initial focus is the sibling rivalry within the department. It's a standard "prove yourself, brother" relationship that Baldwin and Russell pull off well. Their chemistry, while at times hampered by Baldwin's pouty facial expressions, is one of the main forces pushing the film forward. The copious training, competing, and firefighting montages, however, do nothing to help the fact that we've seen this sort of plot device countless times before. It's hard for even the best character chemistry to shine through an early-90s training montage. Backdraft, like any other cop, paramedic, or riverboat patrol guard movie, wears the stock story of rookie-growth and heroism like a standard-issue badge.

Despite the film's heavy leaning on standard plot devices, the first half of Backdraft works. It's a loud, fun time thanks largely in part to the actors' charisma…oh yeah, and fire. Ron Howard has filmed some of the most impressive fire sequences in Hollywood; that's the real reason you're watching this thing.

Backdraft is a vehicle for great fire effects. Executed with entirely practical means, the burning buildings, explosions, and tongues of flame in the movie will just about melt your face. While there are plenty of fires for the McCaffreys to put out, every sequence is equally thrilling: flames spread across the ceilings, burst through doors, or snake out of ventilation systems; entire buildings collapse without a trace of CGI; and the climactic burning warehouse fight scene gives the ending of Terminator 2 a run for its money. No wonder Kurt Russell's character is strangely in love with fire, Ron Howard makes it look incredible.

I would be totally satisfied with Backdraft's complacent brand of procedural storytelling if it just stuck with the brother-angle and kept things moving. Instead, halfway through the film, focus shifts into almost an entirely different genre, as Robert DeNiro's lingering subplot about a serial arsonist takes center stage. The next thing you know, DeNiro (who is barely phoning in his performance as "Shadow" Rimgale) is training Baldwin in the art of fire forensics, interviewing the Hannibal Lecter-esque Sutherland, and hot on the trail of a conspiracy filled with political intrigue and other such things. For a movie already brimming with stereotypes and melodrama, the arson plot kills the dramatic momentum; now you've got two storylines filled with clichés and predictable outcomes. At least there's still stuff on fire.

This "Anniversary Edition" Blu-ray release helps alleviate the pain of sitting through hackneyed storytelling by making the fire scenes that much better. The disc's transfer puts plenty of emphasis on film grain, and there's more than enough dirt and scratches in some scenes to make you question the remastering job; however, once those doors start exploding and the fire starts burning, things can't look much better. The color levels are great, with blacks, oranges, and reds taking over without bleeding into one another. The aftermath scenes, cast in a silvery gray, pop even more. Some of the more subdued scenes feel a little low-contrast in comparison, but not enough to bother me. The film's score, an overcooked Hans Zimmer fest (probably recognizable to Iron Chef fans), comes in nicely through the disc's DTS Master Audio and stereo tracks.

As far as supplements go, the Blu-ray appears to be a direct copy of the 2006 "Anniversary Edition." There's an introduction by Ron Howard, a whole bunch of deleted scenes, and a slew of making-of featurettes. The standard-def featurettes prove to be the most interesting, providing plenty of behind-the-scenes footage on how the fire effects were created in the film. The only real Blu-ray feature is the scene companion, which takes clips from the featurettes and overlays them picture-in-picture style while you watch the film. While a new commentary track, or anything Blu-ray specific, would have been nice, the scene companion at least presents the old material in a better context.

Closing Statement

I wish Backdraft could be separated into its two disparate layers: the cheesy story of two brothers trying to catch an arsonist and the badass firefighting sequences. Sometimes, you have to take the bad with the good and just hope that the simple, memorable, pleasures of blowing stuff up is enough to satisfy. With this Blu-ray release, that just may be the case.

The Verdict


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Scales of Justice

Video: 90
Audio: 94
Extras: 75
Acting: 87
Story: 70
Judgment: 79

Perp Profile

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
• DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Spanish)
• DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
• DTS 2.0 Stereo (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Action
• Blu-ray
• Crime
• Drama
• Mystery
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Ron Howard Intro
• Picture-in-Picture
• Deleted Scenes
• Featurettes
• Pocket Blu
• BD-Live


• IMDb

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