A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that there's a lot of CSI-type imagery here: charred, dead bodies and body parts pickled in jars. A burned body is imbedded in the windshield of a car, legs sticking straight out over the hood. Brian, Stephen, and the other firefighters face tremendous danger in burning buildings. A character dies in a fire. A fireman goes through a floor and nearly falls to his death. Another firefighter catches on fire and is severely burnt but survives. The film also depicts a couple's impending divorce. They sleep together one last time, confusing and hurting their son. There is some rear nudity (mostly male) and some sexual situations.
- Parents say
- Kids say
What's the story?
Twenty years after he watched his father die fighting a fire, Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin) returns to Chicago to finally face his demons. But despite his best bribery efforts, he ends up facing them at the very firehouse where his father worked -- and where his pain-in-the-butt older brother Stephen (Kurt Russell) now holds sway. Between the sibling rivalry, the drunken fights between Stephen and his ex-wife's new boyfriend, and erroneous news reports, Brian has to figure out whether he really has the nerve to storm into a fire and fight it (he mistakenly rescues a mannequin from a garment factory), whether he can face up to the horrible memory of his father's death, and whether he can help solve the mystery of who's systematically killing Chicago businessmen by setting up deadly "backdrafts" in their homes.
Is it any good?
If you can block out memories of Sept. 11, 2001, you'll probably still find this film overly long and cheesy -- but you might enjoy it more. Since 9/11, it's hard to imagine a movie that can stand up to the real-life heroism that New York firefighters displayed on that horrible day. Seen through that lens, 1991's summer blockbuster BACKDRAFT seems schmaltzy and overly precious. Ron Howard's sentimental direction is buoyed by the work of some great actors, though, notably Donald Sutherland as creepy firestarter Ronald and Robert DeNiro as investigator Donald "Shadow" Rimgale. Modern lovers of the gory CSI TV franchise will also appreciate the up-close-and-personal looks at bodies burned beyond recognition and the visits to the police lab and the scene of the crime.
But savvy movie buffs will also recognize set pieces that may work for the film but have cliché written all over them: Brian visits Ronald in the psychiatric hospital, echoing Silence of the Lambs, which was produced the same year. Viewers may also recognize the music-video montage scenes, a la Baywatch. Unfortunately for Backdraft, those other broadcasts do it better.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how Brian and Stephen's sibling rivalry affects their working relationship. Does it help or hurt their dangerous work? This may be a good time to talk to kids about how sibling rivalry affects them at school and with friends. It's also a good opportunity for divorced parents to talk to their children about how the split affected them.
- In theaters: May 24, 1991
- On DVD or streaming: September 19, 2006
- Cast: Kurt Russell, Robert De Niro, William Baldwin
- Director: Ron Howard
- Studio: Universal Pictures
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Run time: 138 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: language and a scene of sensuality.
- Last updated: March 14, 2020
Our editors recommend
Top advice and articles
Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.
Streaming options powered by JustWatch