Reviewed by: Brett Willis
|Featuring||Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Donald Sutherland, Rebecca De Mornay, Jason Gedrick, J.T. Walsh|
|Producer||Richard B. Lewis, Pen Densham, John Watson, Todd Hallowell, Larry DeWaay, Brian Grazer, Raffaella DeLaurentis|
Sometimes there’s heated debate whether big-city firefighters should be paid the same as police. What with all the cop movies, the media probably tips public opinion on that point; so an occasional firefighter movie helps to even the score.
In 1971 Chicago, “Dad” McCaffrey’s two young sons are visiting at his fire station when an alarm comes in. Dad (Kurt Russell), a top-notch firefighter, allows his younger son Brian to come along on the truck, not knowing that Brian will see him get killed in the line of duty while saving the life of fellow firefighter Adcox (Scott Glenn).
Forward to 1991. The older son, Stephen (also Kurt Russell), is now a Lieutenant at Number 17, the same station that his father worked in. Brian (William Baldwin), on the other hand, has been in and out of several careers including an aborted stint at the Firefighting Academy. Now he’s gone to the Academy a second time, graduated this time, but is still unsure whether he’s got what it takes. The picture is further clouded by (1) bad blood between the two brothers, (2) trouble at home between Stephen and his estranged wife Helen (Rebecca De Mornay), (3) city funding cutbacks—possibly a scam—which are putting firefighters at risk, (4) a skilled arsonist who’s setting fires to kill specific people. All these plot lines and more are cleverly tied together. In addition to the above-mentioned cast, Robert De Niro (as an arson investigator) and Donald Sutherland (as an already-jailed psychopathic arsonist) turn in good performances. In a sequence reminiscent of “Silence of the Lambs,” an investigator tries to pick the brain of Sutherland’s character in order to understand and catch the new unknown arsonist, and the brain-picking works both ways.
There are several on-screen or implied deaths, and some shots of burned bodies. Also a couple of fistfights. The profanity is extreme. The eye-popping special effects of firefighting are technically excellent, and therefore unnerving. The possibility that people in positions of trust are untrustworthy can be upsetting, although it’s become a common movie theme. There are a couple of implied sex scenes, but no visible nudity. In one (played for laughs), the tryst takes place at a fire station and is interrupted by an alarm. In the other, an estranged married couple gets back together for a night but it turns out that the reunion isn’t permanent. There’s non-sexual nudity as the firemen (yes, all males) shower: rear views, and front views down to below the navel.
Stephen and most of the other firefighters are very courageous. Stephen is a throwback to his father’s time: He still has an 8-track and plays tapes of groups like Iron Butterfly; and he longs for the simple “no-if’s” days when the Fire Department just responded in force when people called, and there were no political games like closing “excess” Stations. And, the relationship between the two brothers is less negative and more complex than it first appears.
Although Stephen probably takes more chances than the average real-life firefighter, the film reminds us of a sometimes under-appreciated group of professionals who must be ready every day to risk their lives for others. Emotionally grabbing, and worth seeing if you can stand the strong content.