Backdraft" has spectacle, it has stars, it has love, death, pain and lots of fire. But what it needed most was a final draft.
The movie, covering a heroic bunch of firefighters in Chicago, seems like a jumble of scenes from a variety of unrelated "fire" projects. Some of the stories it tells don't even really touch some of the other stories.
And director Ron Howard, who has been a quiet technician of high craft level and low ego level (as in "Splash" and "Parenthood"), is suddenly coming on like an auteur, filling the movie with attention-milking stylistic tropes while a truly wretched score beats you on the skull with a tambourine. It's like watching Sergio Leone do an opera buffa version of "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow."
Kurt Russell and William Baldwin are bull-stud older brother and wet-behind-the-ears whelp younger brother at an engine company in the Windy City, although out-of-towner Howard can't really get the milieu to pop to life. As far as danger is concerned, Russell has no doubts, chiefly because he has no brains; Baldwin has doubts, not because he has brains, but because the script says he has doubts. (He's a very irritating performer, whiny and narcissistic at once and a lousy emotional fulcrum for the story).
Meanwhile, as these two struggle with their bonds and their Budweisers, someone is flambe-ing victims by building a "backdraft" -- that is, artificially sealing a starving fire in a room so when the door is opened, the hungry flames leap at the new source of oxygen with the force of a dragon's breath. The poor man standing in the doorway is an instant crispy critter.
Meanwhile again, fire investigator Robert De Niro is picking through the ruins and trying unsuccessfully to pass his New York accent off as a Chicago one. He seems completely disconnected from the rest of the movie, which is a shame because his segment is the only consistently interesting one; and when he and guest artist Donald Sutherland -- in for a preening day's work as an arsonist's version of Hannibal Lecter -- meet to discuss the ignition point of various substances, the movie has become its own double feature.
The women -- chiefly Rebecca DeMornay as Russell's estranged wife and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Baldwin's ex- and then-again girlfriend -- are strictly hood ornaments. The plot is predictable, particularly as it yields witlessly to one of the oldest flaws in the book. And that is: when you have a major star (Scott Glenn) and by the halfway point he isn't doing much, and you're wondering . . . who dunnit? . . . it doesn't take Pauline Kael to put two plus two together.
And the ending. Or should I say "the endings." This is one of those jobs where the movie has so many unrelated plots it must of necessity have a litany of unrelated endings. The final reel has so many thunderous trumpet blasts, which should yield those two magic words on the screen but instead lead you to another sequence, it begins to seem comical.
What works in the movie is one thing and one thing only: the elemental power of fire. "Backdraft" gets an asterisk in the record book as the first movie to set major actors aflame, a critic's dream; I'll give it an extra half-star for that alone.
More to the point, the fire effects are almost unbearably vivid. Howard treats fire like a wounded animal in the high grass: It creeps, it lurks, it waits -- then it explodes. When it gets really peeved, it advances in a mad charge, devouring those who stand against it. Putting it out is a combination of hunting and combat: You've got to find it and you've got to kill it.
As a tribute to the guys who put the cold blue stuff on the hot orange stuff, "Backdraft" is first class. But it's supposed to be a movie, not a monument, and as such it's strictly a case of arson and the old lace of melodrama.
Starring Kurt Russell and Robert De Niro.
Directed by Ron Howard.
Released by Universal.