Backdraft wants to be both an action film which emphasises the heroism of firefighters as well as a dramatic film which has interesting characters to it, but in attempting to balance these two themes, Ron Howard leaves Backdraft dangling somewhere in the middle. It isn't a bad film, but it's attempts to be a drama don't work that well.
Backdraft could have been a good solid action film if it narrowed its dramatic focus down simply to the brotherly relationship between Lt. Stephen "Bull" McCaffrey and Candidate Firefighter Brian McCaffrey as they fight a series of fires then it would have been simply a good action film with a dramatic undercurrent. But the fact that it reached out to attempt to have a crime themed undercurrent shows it biting off more than it can chew. Backdraft can't chew too much and so a lot of the dramatic elements seem unnecessary and simply prolong the film. I didn't find any of the dramatics interesting if they weren't focused around the relationship between the two brothers because their other relationships weren't that interesting and the crime drama theme didn't interest me either. Backdraft simply is not as deep as it really wants to be and the fact that it tries a little hard to be what it can't succeed at makes it an example of Ron Howard's trouble at integrating depth into an action film. He gives a fair treatment to Gregory Widen's well written screenplay but what he does simply is not necessary. Action films aren't usually Ron Howard's best talent because he is better at making good comedies such as Night Shift or meaningful drama films like A Beautiful Mind, and even his later film Rush serves as a better example of integrating exciting action in with a serious plot because of how he balanced the racing scenes with the drama of the characters. He doesn't do that in Backdraft, so it is better to say that this film is simply a step in the right direction for him.
And Backdraft does reveal Ron Howard's eye for great action scenes. The action saved the film because it emphasises the heroism of firefighters as well as being vary entertaining. You'd think that a firefighter themed film could only go so far, but thanks to Ron Howard's keen eye for visual elements the film is loaded with some excellent firefighting scenes which are creative and exhilarating thanks to powerful cinematography and excellent editing. It is all very intense as well due to the addition of a powerful musical score and a lot of intense sound effects, so Backdraft is an atmospheric feature. And the visual effects are use me so well that half the time I can't tell if the fires are real or not. So Backdraft is one of Ron Howard's most visually powerful films and entertains on behalf of the action theme due to being visually great and intense at the same time. And the cast make a fine effort to please crowds as well.
Kurt Russell's lead performance in Backdraft is a great one. My capitalising on his heroism, Kurt Russell turns it into a certain sense of cocky arrogance which makes his character one that is both likeable and dislike for a series of reasons. And thanks to his natural charisma and excellent acting skill, Kurt Russell takes the lead role by storm. He is flawlessly convincing as a heroic firefighter due to his muscular physicality and his natural talent for heroism, and his chemistry with William Baldwin make them a greatly convincing duo as a pair of brothers. Backdraft serves as another example of Kurt Russell's talents as a leading man as well as a dramatic actor and action hero, so it succeeds in all areas.
William Baldwin also gives a terrific effort. I haven't seen him in many films, but considering the nature of his performance in Backdraft, I have no problem with him as an actor. He easily takes on the role of a young and inexperienced firefighter who lives in his brother's shadow, and for that he reveals a certain kind of troubled youthful touch while also implementing a sense of determination. So William Baldwin makes the role seem real and does an entertaining job where he deals with the dramatic material honestly making a good name for himself while also putting up a heroic fight. William Baldwin is an awesome heroic addition to the cast in Backdraft, and he plays a firefighter very convincingly.
Robert De Niro, Rebecca De Mornay and Jennifer Jason Leigh also all deliver firm supporting performances.
So although Backdraft is overly long and not as dramatic or deep as it wants to be, it is an awesomely entertaining action film with a fine cast and strong sense of heroism about firefighters.