In Ron Howard's Backdraft, fire comes roiling across the top of a room in billowy, black orange waves. It gets sucked behind the walls, like a genie pouring back into its bottle (for a few seconds, the film seems to be running in reverse motion), and then, fueled by a surge of air, it explodes outward with ever-greater lightning force. During a climactic inferno in a chemical warehouse, it seems to come at the fire fighters from every imaginable angle an elusive, shapeless hydra with a thousand incendiary heads.
Fire, as this movie makes clear, is nothing if not photogenic, and Howard has done a beautiful job of conjuring both its danger and its deceptive, primal beauty. If for no other reason than that, Backdraft is likely to become a hit. The fire fighters we see are true heroes, but with just a hint of craziness. They're locked in a struggle with a beast they can tame but never defeat (they keep squelching it, and it keeps coming back every day), and so their job automatically takes on the dimensions of an obsession. As one character says, the only way to beat fire is to love it a little.
As a director, Howard has become increasingly conventional since he broke through with Splash, in 1984. His most recent picture, the enjoyable but innocuous Parenthood (1989), often felt like a glorified sitcom and, indeed, it was turned into a short-lived TV series. Backdraft has some of the raw filmmaking excitement that has been missing from Howard's recent work. Yet this movie, too, is conventional. It plunges us into the harsh and heroic world of contemporary fire fighters, but rather than revealing where these eccentrically marginal daredevils really live, it uses them as the springboard for a run-of-the-mill conspiracy thriller.
Set in Chicago, the movie revolves around the two McCaffrey brothers: Brian (William Baldwin), who saw his fearless, fire-fighting dad die in a rescue attempt 20 years earlier (as a stricken little boy, he ended up on the cover of Life), and Stephen (Kurt Russell), who raised him and went on to become a fireman himself. In some ways, the two McCaffreys are close, yet they don't really like each other; they're still competing to fill the void their father left. Stephen, who's about 5 years older, may be great at putting out fires, but he's also a compulsive risk-taker who gets high on his own bravado. He's reckless (he doesn't even wear his oxygen mask), and he makes a sly point of outshining the other men. Running into a burning building with his ax held high, he's literally a hothead, a self-appointed knight locked in combat with the elements. Brian, who's less driven and also less arrogant, has just graduated from the fire fighters' academy and joined his brother's precinct as an apprentice. The movie poses the question: Does he, too, have the right stuff?
At one point, Brian and a fellow rookie (Jason Gedrick), having survived their first, smoky blaze, endure some ritual teasing by the veterans. It's a good scene, but it's the only time in the movie when we get a sense of the firemen as an organic, bonded community. Howard uses jumpy camera work to put us right there in the station house, but as a storyteller he's drawn to squarely melodramatic situations. When it looks like Brian isn't going to make it on the front lines, he's given a desk job assistant to the department's chief arson investigator (Robert De Niro), who's exploring a series of lethal ''backdrafts'' (that's where fire comes bursting out in a sudden, apocalyptic blast). It soon becomes apparent that the backdrafts have all been staged, and by a real master. But what's the link between them?
As Stephen, Kurt Russell pushes his squinty-eyed macho charm just a little bit over the edge. Cocky and muscle-bound, constantly playing his eight-track tapes from the early '70s (he's still stuck in the era when his father died), Stephen has a single-mindedness that's slightly freaky. He's a genuine hero who's always calibrating his own heroism. William Baldwin, who's like a skinnier version of his brother Alec (they have matching smirks though William's dark, swept-back hair sometimes threatens to engulf his thin face), is likable but a tad lightweight. As Brian, he needs to anchor the movie, to make his character's ordinary-guy striving as magnetic as Stephen's derring- do. But Brian's earnestness gets a little moist; there aren't enough layers to it. The testy rivalry between the McCaffrey brothers ends up seeming movie- ish in the extreme. With its mixed reverence for individualism and teamwork, the film could just as well have been about fighter pilots or football players.
Backdraft isn't dull, and it has a terrific look to it. The cinematographer, Mikael Salomon, gives the images a dark, burnished vibrance, and the fire-fighting scenes, in which the lead actors did much of their own stunt work, have a thrilling grandeur. Yet the only thing here with a hint of real imagination is Donald Sutherland's small performance as a convicted arsonist named Ronald a kind of pyromaniacal Dr. Lecter who refers to fire as ''the animal'' and smiles with nervous pride when he talks about burning something up. Sutherland makes him a giggling nut case, yet the performance isn't just a joke. For a few moments, this soft-spoken creepo does something no one else in the movie does: He brings you close to fire's terrifying and mysterious allure. B