IF ''BACKDRAFT'' were rated on its special effects alone, it would deserve a 10. Unfortunately, a movie of this sort can travel so far on special effects, then it needs plot.
Ah, but those special effects! It's amazing that anyone could stage all this for the screen. It's equally amazing that no one died during the filming.
Fire is treated as something of an "other presence" in this film, and it is. Ron Howard directed, and he and his crew have managed some spectacular conflagration. This is a movie in which flames are almost beautiful.
Unfortunately, ''Backdraft'' is mostly just flame for the first hour or so. There is only a trace of plot.
Kurt Russell and William Baldwin are brothers. The older (Russell) wants the younger to quit fighting fires, and he is sure this will happen because the younger brother has given up on just about everything else he has tried.
Russell and Baldwin work well together, but the film is half over before we realize that an arsonist is at work. Up to this point, all we have seen are the blasts caused by fire that depletes the oxygen in a room, waits for new air, then explodes. Hence, backdrafts.
When we are made aware that there is a criminal at work here, the movie becomes far more interesting, thanks, largely, to the participation of Robert De Niro and Donald Sutherland, who are really doing supporting roles. De Niro is an arson investigator, and Sutherland is a firebug. When these two appear, the plot intensifies.
The film has a great score, and there is local Chicago color as Howard and his cameras visit various ethnic groups. But when all the smoke clears, when that music is finished, when all those special effects have dazzled the spectators, it is apparent that ''Backdraft'' is not cooking on all burners.
Rebecca De Mornay and Jennifer Jason Leigh are the women keeping company with the brothers, and Scott Glenn is one of the firefighters at the station house.
''Backdraft,'' somewhat short on oxygen, is showing at local houses.
** An arsonist is loose in Chicago and members of a local fire station hope he will be stopped.
CAST: Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Donald Sutherland, Rebecca De Mornay, Jason Gedrick, Robert De Niro
DIRECTOR: Ron Howard
RATING: R (language, violence, sex)
) RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes