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‘Backdraft’: After 30 years, a Chicago firefighting movie that still crackles

In the realistic blazes, we can practically feel the heat and smell the smoke.

“Backdraft” depicts flames with menace, like the shark in “Jaws.”
Universal Pictures

Ask any 10 firefighters to name the best movie about their profession and I’ll bet seven or eight immediately would cite the Chicago-set “Backdraft,” which to this day sets the bar for the most impressive staging of raging, roaring, realistic fires, accomplished primarily through practical effects on controlled sets, with the addition of some spectacular blending of visual effects courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic.

Ron Howard’s admittedly sentimental and sometimes bloated love letter to the heroes who run into burning buildings traffics heavily in cliches about Chicago firefighters and in particular those of Irish-American descent, and the melodrama often gets soapy — but every time there’s a fire in a warehouse or an apartment building or an old auditorium or a private home, we can practically feel the heat and smell the smoke as the flames lick the walls and roar all around. Some 30 years after its initial release and with a theatrical re-release right around the corner, “Backdraft” still packs a wallop — and it’s a great showcase for the city of Chicago in all its industrial, gritty, neighborhood glory.

Kurt Russell is one of those actors we tend to take for granted because he’s been so solid for so long — he has 102 acting credits on IMDB, dating back to guest spots on 1960s TV series such as “The Virginian” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” — and he delivers some of the finest work of his career as Lt. Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey. We believe every inch of Russell’s performance as a throwback Chicago tough guy with a heart of gold.

Kurt Russell carries himself with swagger as the highly regarded Lt. Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey.
Universal Pictures

Sporting a modified military haircut and carrying himself with swagger, Stephen is the son of a fallen firefighter (also played by Russell in a 1971 flashback prologue) who never doubted he’d carry on the family tradition. Stephen is separated from his wife Helen (Rebecca De Mornay, back in Chicago eight years after “Risky Business”) but he still shows up to patch the roofing on the house and would do anything to win her back. You know guys like Stephen. He’s fixing up his father’s old boat, he’s a shot-and-a-beer kind of guy and he’s forever at odds with his younger brother Brian (William Baldwin) — but if YOU say something about Brian, he’ll pop you right in the snout. (There are a LOT of fight scenes in “Backdraft.” Stephen and Brian even get into a brawl outside the hospital room where a colleague has been badly burned and is barely clinging to life. Come on boys, take it outside!)

Set in and around the fictional Engine 17 and Truck 46 firehouse with filming taking place in a number of real-life Chicago Fire Department stations, “Backdraft” tells the story of those McCaffrey brothers: Stephen, who has achieved legendary status as a firefighter and leader, and Brian, who washed out on his first attempt to become a firefighter and is now a “probie” for a second time, much to his brother’s chagrin. (Stephen is convinced Brian is careless and will get himself killed one day.) Brian isn’t four minutes on the job when Chicago is plagued by a series of fires that appear to be the work of an arsonist who is using some sort of formula to create blazes with backdrafts, i.e., the sudden introduction of air into a fire that causes powerful and deadly explosions. Director Howard films the fire scenes as if the flames are like the shark in “Jaws”; we can hear hissing sounds as if a giant snake is in the buildings before there’s an explosion of horrific proportions.

Fire department rookie Brian (William Baldwin, left) hasn’t earned the trust of his big brother, Stephen (Kurt Russell).
Universal Pictures

Here’s how Robert De Niro’s Inspector Rimgale puts it: “It’s a living thing, Brian. It breathes, it eats and it hates. … This flame will spread this way across the door and up across the ceiling not because of the flammable liquids, but because it WANTS to. … The only way to truly kill it is to love it a little.” Only the great Bobby D could pull off a hokey monologue like that, and even then, just barely.

The supporting cast in “Backdraft” is magnificent, from J.T. Walsh as a corrupt Chicago alderman (how dare they!) to Jennifer Jason Leigh as the alderman’s ambitious assistant and Brian’s ex, to Scott Glenn as John “Axe” Adcock, a veteran firefighter and Stephen’s best friend, to Donald Sutherland in a truly chilling turn as a convicted arsonist who wants to burn the whole world down and only agrees to provide his insight to investigators in exchange for a look at the files of these recent fires. He’s the arsonist Hannibal Lecter.

We also get glimpses and hear the sounds of Chicago Irish-American staples such as the Drovers, the Emerald Society’s Drums & Bagpipes and the Trinity Academy of Irish Dance — and late in the film, there’s a deeply moving scene when thousands of uniformed firefighters (many of them real firefighters) march in a funeral procession down a rain-soaked Michigan Avenue, after which we cut to the burial at Graceland Cemetery.

Three decades after “Backdraft” first hit theaters, that sequence is still a beautiful and moving tribute to firefighters in Chicago and around the world.

For a list of Chicago area theaters screening “Backdraft” on Sunday and Wednesday, go to www.fathomevents.com.