The film grossed $77.9 million domestically and $74.5 million in foreign markets, for a total gross of $152.4 million, making it the highest-grossing film ever made about firefighters. The film received three Academy Award nominations.
Two firefighters of Engine 17 of the Chicago Fire Department are brothers. Lt. Stephen "Bull" McCaffrey, the elder, is experienced, while Brian has labored under his brother's shadow all his life. Brian returns to firefighting after a number of other careers falter, though Stephen has doubts that Brian is fit to be a firefighter. In 1971, Brian witnessed the death of their firefighting father, Captain Dennis McCaffrey, while accompanying him on a call.
The longest serving of all the men at Engine 17, John "Axe" Adcox, served under the McCaffreys' father and was like an uncle to the boys when their father died. He attacks fires head on, but is concerned about Stephen's unorthodox methods and disregard for safety procedures. Helen McCaffrey is Stephen's estranged wife and the mother of their son, Sean. Helen has grown fearful of Stephen's dedication to firefighting and the risks he takes. While they are still in love, she separated from Stephen to protect herself and Sean.
Martin Swayzak is an alderman on the Chicago City Council. Swayzak hopes to be elected mayor, but has made budget cuts to the fire department. Many of the rank and file firemen believe the cuts are endangering firefighters' lives.
Fire Department Captain Donald "Shadow" Rimgale is a dedicated arson investigator and veteran firefighter. He is called in because a number of recent fires resemble fires committed by pyromaniac Ronald Bartel, who has been imprisoned for many years. Brian is reassigned as his assistant after a falling out with Stephen. Rimgale manipulates Bartel's obsession with fire to ensure Bartel's annual parole application is rejected. It is revealed during an investigation that Swayzak was paid off by contractors to shut down firehouses, so they could be converted into community centers, with the contractors receiving contracts for the construction.
When Engine 17 answers a call in a high-rise, Stephen urges them to move in quickly to take out the fire despite Adcox's advice to wait for back-up. Brian's friend and fellow trainee, Tim Krizminski, opens a door, only to be met by a backdraft. His face is burned beyond recognition, but he survives. Adcox and Brian both blame Tim's condition on Stephen's reckless tactics.
Rimgale and Brian go to Swayzak's home to confront him, but interrupt a masked man about to set the place alight. The latter attacks them with a flashlight, but is burned by an electrical socket on his back. Rimgale saves Brian and Swayzak from the house, but is injured in an explosion. In his hospital bed, Rimgale tells Brian to visit Ronald again. Ronald helps Brian realize that only a firefighter would be so careful as to not let the backdraft fires rage out of control.
Brian suspects Stephen, but later spots a burn in the shape of an electrical socket on Adcox's back and reveals his suspicions to his brother just before an alarm. When Brian realizes Adcox has heard their exchange, he jumps aboard Truck 46 after borrowing some turnout gear. Stephen confronts Adcox about the deadly backdrafts during a multiple-alarm fire at a chemical plant. Adcox admits that he set the fires to kill associates of Swayzak, because Swayzak was benefiting from the deaths of firefighters. When an explosion destroys the catwalk they are on, Stephen grabs Adcox's hand while hanging on to the remains of the catwalk. Stephen refuses Adcox' advice to let go of him, but Stephen loses his grip on the catwalk. Adcox is killed and Stephen survives, but is seriously injured. Stephen dies on the way to the hospital with Brian at his side, his final request being that Brian not reveal that Adcox was behind the fires until after Adcox receives a fitting burial.
After Stephen and Adcox's funeral, Brian and Rimgale, with the help of the police, interrupt Swayzak at a press conference. Rimgale questions Swayzak on a fake manpower study that led to the deaths of several firemen, including Stephen and Adcox. They also state that Swayzak engineered the downsizing of the Chicago Fire Department. This effectively destroys Swayzak's mayoral ambitions. Brian continues as a firefighter despite the loss of his father and brother.Kurt Russell as Lt. Stephen "Bull" McCaffrey/Capt. Dennis McCaffrey
William Baldwin as Brian McCaffrey
Robert De Niro as Inspector (Captain) Donald "Shadow" Rimgale
Scott Glenn as John "Axe" Adcox
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Jennifer Vaitkus
Rebecca De Mornay as Helen McCaffrey
Donald Sutherland as Ronald Bartel
Jason Gedrick as Tim Krizminski
J. T. Walsh as Alderman Martin Swayzak
According to the article in Entertainment Weekly, rubber cement from Petronio Shoe Products was used to create some of the fire effects. Industrial Light & Magic created many of the visual effects.
Fire fighting professionals have noted that most real structure fires differ from what is shown in the movie by having smoke conditions that obscure vision inside the building almost completely.
The pictures of firefighters searching in movies like Backdraft do not really show what it is like to search in a fire. Firefighters are shown advancing through fully involved structure fires while not wearing the complete compliment of protective gear (Nomex hoods, radios, PASS devices). Most scenes display firefighting without the use of SCBA [self contained breathing apparatus]. Realism in our case would make a very bad movie because the fact is that in almost every fire the smoke conditions completely obscure all vision.
"The movie ... came pretty close at times, but it also suffered from the very same, all too common shortcomings that any visual presentation was bound to encounter (...) Smoke, steam and other miscellaneous factors usually combine to obscure almost everything that is taking place".
Furthermore, fire investigation professionals have dismissed the investigative methods shown in the movie as unscientific, in particular the portrayal of fire as a living entity.
Backdraft received mixed reviews, ranging from somewhat favorable to extremely negative. Praise was directed to the special effects and performances, while much criticism was reserved for the story being poorly rendered. The film currently holds a 74% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus "It's not particularly deep, but Backdraft is a strong action movie with exceptional special effects." Film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave the film positive reviews.
The film grossed $77,868,585 in the US (ranking 14th in box-office for 1991), and $74,500,000 in foreign markets.
The film received three Academy Award nominations (Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects and Best Sound - Gary Summers, Randy Thom, Gary Rydstrom and Glenn Williams).