Review: Backdraft (1991)

Chicago firefighting brothers Stephen (Kurt Russell) and Brian (William Baldwin) have been rivals since childhood. Brian, struggling to prove himself, transfers to the arson unit. There he aids Don (Robert De Niro) in his investigation into a spate of fires involving oxygen-induced infernos called backdrafts. But when a conspiracy implicating a crooked politician and an arsonist leads Brian back to Stephen, he is forced to overcome his brotherly competitiveness in order to crack the case.


Backdraft was a 1991 blockbuster directed by Ron Howard and starring an all-star ensemble cast that included Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert DeNiro, Donald Sutherland, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Scott Glenn, and Rebecca De Mornay.  It’s about a group of Chicago firefighters on the trail of a serial arsonist who is targeting various victims who are contractors that are connected to each other and a high-ranking city official.

Stephen McCaffrey (Russell) is the Lueinent of Engine Company 17, and his younger brother Brian (Baldwin) is a probationary fireman assigned to the company after graduation from the academy.  The two brothers are the sons of a legendary Chicago firefighter who lost his life battling a blaze while young Brian watched on.  As the movie reveals, the two brothers have never been close, and are at odds with each other more than on the same page.

After several firehouses are shut down due to budget cuts, the arsonist starts taking out the decision-makers behind those cuts by setting deadly “backdraft’ fires to murder them.  Company 17 finds itself as the company that ends up fighting those fires, while Inspector Donald Rimdale (DeNiro) is the one tasked with finding the arsonist behind the attacks.  It all climaxes at a large fire at a chemical plant where the killer is revealed and the McCaffrey brothers must stop him once and for all.  All while battling the huge blaze.

General Thoughts

Growing up in the ’80s with a Dad who was the local fire department chief, I was always fascinated by firemen and firefighting in general.  Now while I was never a fireman myself, I do know more about it than most others who were not.  And what you see in Backdraft is pretty close to how things really are.  The camaraderie displayed between the firemen in the film feels real and on point.  And the fire fighting sequences are top-notch.  The arson investigation is pretty straightforward, but you can’t really guess who is behind it until near the end of the film when everything comes together.  The writers did a pretty good job though of trying to lead you to one conclusion of who the killer is before revealing the true villain.  

Favorite Scene

With all of the great fire fighting sequences included in the movie, it would be an easy answer to pick one of them.  But the scene that really stood out to me was when Inspector Rimdale and Brian McCaffrey go to the parole hearing of pyromaniac Ronald Bartel (Sutherland).  The back and forth dialog between Sutherland and DeNiro as DeNiro gets Sutherland’s character to show just how much he loves fire and burning people that his possible parole is immediately out the window is riveting.  Both actors played their parts extremely well, and Sutherland especially was great with his facial expressions and body language making this one very memorable scene.

Favorite Character

With an ensemble cast as talented as Backdraft boasts, picking a favorite character is quite difficult.  The characters were all very well written and fleshed out, so there was a lot to latch onto with each.  And with the actors in their roles all performing at the top of their game, it makes this very hard to narrow down.  But since I’m forcing myself to pick one, I’m going to go with Ronald Bartel played by Donald Sutherland.  The scene I talked about above is just one of only two scenes the character was in, but he captivated me and held my attention for every second of screen time that he was a part of.

What I Liked Best About the Movie

This is another one that’s really hard to nail down.  With a lot of films I watch, some things just stand out about the rest, but in Backdraft almost everything they do is memorable.  From the directing of Ron Howard to the acting of everyone involved, to the intrigue of the story, to the fire fighting scenes where the special effects still hold up, everything about this movie was well executed.  But I’m going to say that the story arc of Kurt Russell’s Stephen McCaffrey may be the best thing about the film.  When you watch it, I think you’ll know where I’m coming from.  From being the overprotective brother to being the ultimate badass fireman, right through to the final confrontation and climax, Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey was a story well told.

Final Thoughts

Backdraft was a blockbuster in its time for a reason.  It was a “big” movie with a big cast who were hitting on all cylinders at the time, and it lived up to the hype with its special effects and storytelling.  There’s not much more that you could ask from a movie like this. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0 stars