500fullIn the blink of an eye, blood-red flames sneak under doors, hiss back inside, and roar back out — like the exhalation of a wrathful dragon — to annihilate anyone in their path. Great stuff! If only the rest of the movie were as exciting. The flames, in fact, have more personality than any of the actors; and in a movie that includes Robert De Niro, Rebecca DeMornay, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Scott Glenn — all of whom perform at peak dullness — that’s extremely bizarre. Kurt Russell and William Baldwin, the main firefighter heroes, are brothers whose fireman father (also Russell) died in the line of duty. There’s much competitive rancor between the bros, much consumption of Bud Lite. Meanwhile, an arsonist goes around torching those responsible for cuts in Chicago’s fire departments. Director Ron Howard functions here as a traffic monitor; he puts us directly inside the fires, but he can’t do much with Gregory Widen’s awesomely tired script. The closest thing to a performance comes from Donald Sutherland as an incarcerated firebug named Ronald. Speaking bashfully of his pyro obsession, Sutherland is eerie enough to make us forget momentarily that this subplot (Baldwin visits Ronald to gain some insights into the arsonist; Ronald demands quid pro quo by asking how Baldwin dealt with Dad’s death) is a tacky steal from Silence of the Lambs, though Widen swore it wasn’t. (Yes, Silence the movie only came out a few months before Backdraft, but Thomas Harris’ novel was published in 1988. Widen said Backdraft had been in development since 1987, if you want to take his word for it. Entertainment Weekly noticed the similarities, too.) Also with J.T. Walsh, the usual Clint Howard appearance, and lots of actual firemen.

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