Directed by Ron Howard from a screenplay by former fireman Gregory Widen, BACKDRAFT offers an insider's look at a profession seldom featured in movies. Unfortunately, the film drags when the fire is offscreen, only springing to life when it's the main attraction.

The McCaffrey brothers, Stephen (Kurt Russell) and Brian (William Baldwin), are driven by an intense rivalry that started when they were children. When Brian decides to follow Stephen--who in turn followed their late father--into the fire department, tempers flare. Their antagonistic relationship

forces Brian's transfer to another assignment: he's made assistant to Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro), a fire department investigator who specializes in cases of arson. Rimgale is working on a series of fires involving a "backdraft," in which a smoldering fire, exposed to oxygen, suddenly explodes

in a literal fireball. Brian meets Rimgale's nemesis, Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland), a compulsive fire starter who dreams of seeing the entire world in flames. The investigation points to a corrupt city alderman (J.T. Walsh), but after consulting with Bartel, Brian begins to suspect his


Despite the novelty of the setting, the family drama that forms BACKDRAFT's core is predictable. What makes BACKDRAFT enthralling is the fire itself. Much--in fact, too much--is made dialogue-wise of the fire being a living thing, a kind of beast that slinks in the shadows and preys on the

careless, the unsuspecting and the overconfident. But BACKDRAFT's fire more than lives up to expectations. It's spectacular, yes, but that's not all. Not only do the firefighting scenes evoke a feeling of gritty authenticity, but the fire itself really does seem to be alive. A scene in which a

door warps ever-so-slightly, almost imperceptibly outward because a smoldering fire lurks behind it, waiting for the blast of oxygen that will bring it to roaring life, would work just as well in a finely crafted horror movie; the sentience, the subtle and cruel intelligence of the fire seems

beyond dispute.