'Backdraft' seems to be one of those movies that lives more fondly as a distant memory rather than AS an immediate one. That's not to say it's a bad movie, I really enjoy it, but there's just something about it that makes me remember it as a better movie than what it is. Maybe it's Ron Howard's direction, and even though the movie is riddled with almost every dramatic cliché imaginable, Howard is still able to construct a courageous tale of Chicago firemen and the challenges they face. Maybe it's the action-packed fire scenes, that still to this day, are unrivaled by any other movie. Whatever it is, 'Backdraft' will always be a movie that I like more in the past tense than the present.
Most of us, by now, have seen 'Backdraft.' It's a lengthy movie, but even with its two-hour plus running time it still has so many plots and subplots packed into it, it feels like it should be twice as long. We've got a sibling rivalry between two brothers (Kurt Russell and William Baldwin) who both want to honor the memory of their fallen fireman father. A father (Russell) tries to deal with the separation from his wife and kid. There's a grizzled fire inspector (Robert De Niro) who keeps to himself while he's figuring out what caused a blaze. A crooked mayoral candidate is seeking reelection while cutting funding for firehouses everywhere. A serial arsonist (Donald Sutherland) sits in jail because of the fires he's set. Another serial arsonist could be on the loose killing a group of people that may be related somehow. And there's even a love story thrown in for good measure.
At times, 'Backdraft' feels overly crowded with all of its intersecting subplots, but Howard does a fine job at balancing them enough that we don't become too overwhelmed.
Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin), is the younger of the two brothers, and he desperately wants to live up to his father and older brother. Stephen McCaffrey (Kurt Russell) has never been one for small talk or showing any sort of sympathy towards his younger brother. Sure, he loves him, but he doesn't have to show it. Stephen is the classic “I'm going by anything but the book” character, as he charges head first into fires without much though or reasoning. The story largely revolves around the brothers and their relationship, but it's a little easy to get lost in the periphery.
There are quite a few background characters in 'Backdraft' that actually make the show more memorable. Donald Sutherland, as the pyromaniac who is wasting away in jail like some kind of fire-loving Hannibal Lecter, delivers one of the many great supporting performances. Robert De Niro as a headstrong fire inspector is the other. I can't help but think how much more exciting a movie specifically about De Niro and Sutherland's characters would have been. Even Scott Glenn as veteran fireman John Adcox gives a stalwart performance.
Still, what keeps me coming back to 'Backdraft' again and again are those hair-raising fire fighting scenes. In a day and age where CG scenes have become commonplace in action movies, removing any and all danger, the fire scenes in 'Backdraft' feel real and genuine. You feel as though one wrong move and Kurt Russell will be going up in flames, for real. These are some of the most exciting action scenes in all of cinema, and I don't say that lightly. They really are. Watching the actors navigate the flame covered corridors and rooms is frightening. Where 'Backdraft' lacks in clichéd characters and storytelling, it more than makes up for it with the sheer terrifying spectacle of its burning buildings and the firemen who fight them.
First off I'll explain that I don't know, whether or not this the same master that was used for the earlier HD DVD release of 'Backdraft.' I do know that the 'Backdraft' case proudly announces that it was “remastered in high definition,” but whether that means it was specifically for this Blu-ray release or if they're referring to the HD DVD release is anyone's guess. I haven't actually seen the HD DVD, so I wouldn't be able to provide an accurate comparison of the two. I'll try and explain what I encountered with this Blu-ray release of 'Backdraft' and then you can draw your own conclusions.
Coming from 1991, 'Backdraft' and its 1080p image looks like it has aged well. The softness of some of the photography shows the movie's age, ever so slightly. There are times where backlight floods in and drowns out colors and details causing a kind of hazy look. An example of this haziness can be seen in Ronald's parole hearing. It's not that the image looks terrible, but the film does end up showing its age now and then. Like I said, some of the detail is rather soft, especially on wide shots (the last shot overlooking the city seems to have been filmed with a different camera or film, because it's much softer than the rest of the movie). Thankfully, it doesn't seem like any egregious DNR was applied here (although it does appear that it was used minimally on occasion). Closeups feature a wide variety of facial and textual details. Pores, freckles, facial hairs, cuts, bruises, and scrapes are all clearly visible. The dirt, grime, and soot caked on the firemen's faces comes across as clear as ever. Blacks were a very pleasant surprise, as crushing was hardly ever an issue.
The image is rather clean for the most part, but there are times when the footage is riddled with flecks, spots and hairs, that crop up every now and then. Some scenes seem to have it worse than others, like the opening five to ten minutes and a scene around the middle where Brian McCaffrey gets into the fire engine and speeds off with his team. For an older film, these kinds of flecks are to be expected, and after those couple of scenes their potency wears off and they only appear occasionally for the rest of the film. Aliasing is never a problem, even during scenes that feature outside views of a lot of downtown Chicago buildings. Very, faint blocking can be seen in a flame or two during the burning warehouse scene, but let me stress that it's extremely faint. You'll have to strain your eyes to catch it, so it doesn't detract from the overall beauty and fiery splendor of the scene. Banding is also a non-issue, as I never saw it pop up even once.
Fans of 'Backdraft' are going to love this presentation. Some of the fire scenes, especially as it crawls along the ceilings forming a bright orange-yellow carpet of heat, are almost demo-worthy. The fire looks fantastic here, and that's the most important thing. Pick this one up knowing that you're going to get a pretty impressive video presentation.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix for 'Backdraft' on Blu-ray is something to behold, it truly is. This is one of those mixes that you'll remember. It's actually one of the most lively, nuanced tracks I've heard in a very long time. Let's get the bad out of the way first. The dialogue sounds canned and flat some of the time. Whispers are hard to hear, and you may find yourself straining to hear Donald Sutherland whimper his lines.
Okay, now the good… everything else. I mean everything! This track is a bombastic assault on the eardrums. The fire fighting scenes are full of raw commotion. The surrounds never stop, as they engulf you into the life of what it's like fighting fires. Sheetrock and timber crackle and break, behind you as the gushing sound of the house smoothly pans from side to side as the firemen try to extinguish the flames. LFE is a constant treat here as it heaves and breaths along with the flowing flames. Whenever a fireball escapes from a room the bass kicks in full blast like we've just been face to face with a bazooka as it's gone off. The fire fighting scenes are bar-none some of the best surround sound audio I've ever heard. Not only in its brawny strength, but 'Backdraft' impresses with its attention to the little details that make it so realistic. Sure there's a roaring fire lapping up the walls all around the sound stage, but there's also other things going on. Creaking metal being overturned as the firefighters press forward, the faint yells of characters off screen as they bark commands at each other, the slow crackling of wooden walls and floors right before they're about to collapse. I could go on and on, but what you need to know is that this audio mix is one of the finest around, and one of the best I've ever heard for a catalog release. Universal took their time with this one and it shows.
Clichés aside, 'Backdraft' is an exciting thrill-ride of a movie. The action scenes are terrifying in their realism and make me realize just how much we're missing out on in this day and age of computer generated danger. There's just nothing like the real deal. Fans of the movie will love the video presentation, but may just be floored by the sonic delight that is the audio presentation. The extras are all ported over from 'Backdraft's previous home video releases, but the Scene Companion is a semi-decent Blu-ray extra. Overall, this one comes recommended.