A note of warning: if you love 'Backdraft,' you should probably skip the story part of this review and head right on down to the technical portions below. Because, to be bluntly honest, I really hated this movie.
Having never seen 'Backdraft' before having to do this review, I didn't really have any expectations for it. I knew it was an earlier Ron Howard movie, back when he was still in his full-on, aw shucks mode of Steven Spielberg-inspired moviemaking, and that it was also about fire. Unfortunately, it only took a few minutes for even my meager hopes to be dashed, as the film is so mawkish, heavy-handed and obvious I couldn't stop laughing through the whole thing. By the end of the movie, I was rooting for the fire to blow everyone up.
The plot. As a child, Brian McCafferty (William Baldwin) watched his idealistic father (Kurt Russell), a Chicago firefighter, die tragically in the line of duty. Years later, and hoping to live up to the family name, he joins his brother Steven (Russell again) on the force as a rookie firefighter. As the tensions between the brothers heats up, so do the fires. Set against the backdrop of a mystery -- an arsonist is setting off a series of destructive fires around the city, each designed to execute a specific person -- the brothers McCafferty must heal old wounds if they are to find the killer, as well as win back the women in their lives, who've they've alienated in their battle for family nobility and honor.
I don't know -- sometimes a movie works for you, and sometimes it doesn't. 'Backdraft' didn't work for me. I think it was because of Ron Howard's sensibilities. I'm all for having a mentor, but Howard so idealized Spielberg at the time that 'Backdraft' feels like a parody. The big, sweeping crane shots. The breathless zoom-ins on the awe-struck faces of the fireman. The long-suffering families back home, each with a pre-teen young boy who, of course, idealizes his firefighter dad (another long-running Spielberg theme). Really, I almost expected E.T. to float down at the end and put out all the fires with his heartlight.
Okay, okay. I'm being a bit sarcastic. But 'Backdraft' just feels really packaged -- and ultimately a bit cynical -- which is reinforced by the new interviews produced for this HD DVD release. Certainly, Howard and the filmmakers meant well, but they only seem vaguely aware that all the focus on the fire and the carnage is a bit exploitative. A movie about firefighters, featuring the latest special effects technology, was definitely a no-brainer. Unfortunately, every aspect of the film is too carefully constructed and premeditated, so the drama rings false. 'Backdraft' is not so much a movie about real firefighters, as it is about Howard's -- and by extension, moviegoing America's -- idealized, mythic vision of them. Everyone is so drenched in golden halos that they don't have time to be real people. The McCafferty family thing is also a pretty tired, hackneyed device, and I never got the feeling that anyone involved with the film really cared about all the melodrama and the wives and the girlfriends and the totally formulaic thriller plot. And why waste Robert De Niro in your movie by having him play a character so one-note and ultimately purposeless?
In the end, 'Backdraft' is only memorable for its fire, stunts and action. Indeed, the fireworks in the movie are absolutely incredible. Created without the benefit of CGI, every scene is terrifying to watch, precisely because you know it was all done live, on set, with only a measly fire extinguisher separating Kurt Russell from a crispy death. It is just too bad that so much effort was put into staging such elaborate pyrotechnics, and not on a better story about real-life heroes who seemed genuine and believable. I would still love to see a big Hollywood movie about firefighters, the kind who risk their lives daily with little financial reward. Unfortunately, 'Backdraft' isn't it.
Everything old is new again. Universal actually released 'Backdraft' once before in high-def, on the short-lived D-VHS format (remember that?) So while this new HD DVD transfer is actually a bit old, or at least minted from an older master, I certainly couldn't tell. In all honestly, I've seen few films from the early '90s look this stunning, on any format.
Universal has done a very fine job in cleaning up the source materials for 'Backdraft,' as I detected not a single dropout, blemish or speckle. Blacks and contrast are excellent. Made before the big CGI boom, when even non-effects movies starting getting all digitally tweaked to make them look "perfect," 'Backdraft' has a wonderfully natural, film-like look. Colors are robust and vivid, but not oversaturated or artificial in appearance. Fleshtones are also a perfect shade of orange. Depth to the image is often exquisite -- the film's Chicago locations are bustling with fine details even in long shots, and close-ups often reveal fine textures on clothing and individual beads of sweat on faces. Edge enhancement is also not a problem, with the transfer looking amazing sharp with no edge halos or other artifacts to irritate. It really is a joy to see a film look this terrific, and so natural. A true winner.
Sorry to use such a shameless cliche, but 'Backdraft' does indeed sound "explosive" on HD DVD. No, we don't get a Dolby TrueHD track -- now that really would have been something -- but the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround mix here (encoded at a very healthy 1.5mbps) certainly delivers on its own.
'Backdraft' benefits greatly from aggressive sound design, which is all the more impressive as the film is now fifteen years old. Surrounds are almost constantly engaged, certainly during any scene that remotely involves fire. Placement of discrete sounds in specific channels, and panning effects to create an enveloping soundfield, are expertly done. Imaging is also about as transparent as I've heard on a non-Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Dynamic range is top notch, with a tremendous sense of reality and depth to sounds that truly does make you feel like the fire is in the room with you. Dialogue is also nicely balanced in the mix, so volume levels are not a problem. Finally, low bass is hefty, so this one will deliver excellent .1 LFE if you turn it up loud.
For years, Universal has been promising a special edition of 'Backdraft' on disc. I can remember as far back as the late '90s, when the first, featureless DVD of the film hit the shelves, that the studio was already working on assembling new interviews and such for a new version. Well, here we are in 2006, and just in time for its 15th anniversary, 'Backdraft' has finally gotten the deluxe treatment on HD DVD (as well as DVD).
Surprisingly, there is no audio commentary on the disc, so it is up to the hour's worth of making-of featurettes to deliver the goods. After a 3-minute Introduction by Ron Howard where the director praises the film and the cast, "Igniting the Story" kicks things off. Featuring new interviews with most of the key creative team, including Howard, producer Brian Grazer, screenwriter Gregory Widen and composer Hans Zimmer, this one has some sometimes odd and awkward moments. Grazer makes the head-scratching remark that only firefighters are the kind of do-gooders you can "really root for," as they have no ambiguous qualities. Guess we won't be seeing any cop or military movies from Grazer? "Bringing Together the Team" delves into the casting, with more interviews with most of the main A-listers, though Kurt Russell's interview dates back to 1991, while Robert De Niro and Jennifer Jason Leigh are nowhere in sight. Most of the comments are rather perfunctory, though both William Baldwin and Scott Glenn seem quite grateful and humble to have had the experience of making the movie. Finally, "Explosive Stunts" and "Creating the Villain: The Fire" gives us the nitty gritty on all of the film's admittedly stunning firework, which was not only all done live without a net, but also without the assistance of computer-generated imagery. Sorry, but I don't care how many millions you paid me, I would never have done some of the terrifying stunts the actors did here, seemingly without fear.
There is also one more featurette, which is actually the best of the bunch. "Real-Life Firemen, Real-Life Stories" profiles a group of firemen at Station Number 73, in Santa Clarita, California. Quite frankly, there stories are more interesting and emotionally involving than anything in the film. Too bad this featurette is less than ten minutes, which is way too short.
Rounding out the extras are no less than 44 minutes of Deleted Scenes. Unfortunately, despite the interminable length (which could have easily turned 'Backdraft' into a TV miniseries), there is no text or video/audio to help explain the excised material or its context. So this stuff just runs on and on, and amazingly, not one of these scenes is really memorable. Most of it is character filler, which unfortunately is the weakest part of 'Backdraft' anyway. Good luck if you're brave enough to get through all of it.
Par for the course for Universal's HD DVD releases these days, there is no theatrical trailer included.
'Backdraft' is not my favorite Ron Howard movie, though in terms of fiery action, it certainly delivers on the bottom line. Without a doubt, the film contains some of the most, er, explosive fire scenes ever committed to celluloid. This new HD DVD release does all the pyrotechnics justice, with a great transfer and solid soundtrack. There are also some new extras on the disc, so if you're at all a fan of 'Backdraft' or are just an arsonist-in-training, this is well worth considering for a purchase.