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By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 24, 1991


Ron Howard
Kurt Russell;
William Baldwin;
Robert De Niro;
Donald Sutherland;
Scott Glenn;
Jennifer Jason Leigh;
Rebecca DeMornay
sensuality and profanity

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Ron Howard plays Missus O'Leary's cow to modern-day Chicago in "Backdraft," a pyromaniacal salute to American's heroic hose-carriers. Though full of hot air and explosions, it is neither a gas nor a blast, but a noisy, impenetrable and totally nonsensical cogitation on the nature of firefighters and the sizzling "animal" they love.

Kurt Russell and Billy Baldwin are the chief pole-sliders, Stephen and Brian McCaffrey, sons of a Chicago fireman who was killed in the line of duty. After long drifting from job to job, Brian decides to become a firefighter, but his arrogant older brother, a fireman's fireman, is determined to make him pay his dues. Love interests played by Rebecca De Mornay (Stephen's) and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Brian's) stand by their men, but compared with fire, passion burns low and slow herein.

When Stephen finally pushes his brother too hard, Brian goes to work for a renowned arson investigator (Robert De Niro), and this bickering brother movie becomes a tolerable mystery. But this is not to last, for the siren's call is long and loud and not to be denied. And it's off we go to douse another burning building.

Much is made of the fact that we go inside with the men, that fire is treated almost as a real Hellzapoppin human character -- not a nice clean blaze, but fire that lives, hides, feeds. As one character puts it, "Fire does what it does not because of the physics of flammable liquids but because it wants to." Doesn't that sound like a real human? In any case, with smoke as thick as a hippo's ankles, who can see what's going on? And given the dramatic inertia, who cares? We just wish somebody would call 911 for boredom.

Greg Widen, a former fireman who wrote 1986's ghastly "The Highlander," tries to give his screenplay a little heft. He adds some mumbo jumbo involving Donald Sutherland as the resident firebug. Eyeballs rolling like windmills in a tornado, he taunts Brian, who is playing Agent Starling to his Hannibal Lecter. "Your father danced with the animal, heh, heh, heh," he cackles. It may be all too familiar, but at least Sutherland's performance, like De Niro's, is diverting.

The contributions of Russell, Baldwin, De Mornay and Leigh range from underfueled to downright damp. Leigh and Baldwin have a sex scene on a pile of hose that is convincing in that Leigh looks as if she'd rather be aboard a Serta. But where there's fire there's an extinguisher, and in the flick of a Bic, we're screeching off to the longed-for, highly implausible conclusion.

Howard, who brings so much empathy to his domestic comedies, approached this barn-burner with all the restraint of an incontinent spaniel who has just spied a hydrant. "Backdraft" is sure to do for fire what "The Poseidon Adventure" did for water.

"Backdraft" is rated R for sensuality and profanity.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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