Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: we've hit the point where something as dire as Planes: Fire & Rescue legitimately qualifies as one of the week's biggest releases. So anyway, fire and rescue. Pretty much one place you can take that. Anyway, I let the Christian firefighters have their go-round, time for the godless Hollywood heathens to have some fun.

A family drama about firefighter brothers crosscut with a technically audacious action-mystery about firefighter brothers might sound like a weird candidate to become a Zeitgeist hit, but the 1990s produced some really weird big popcorn movies, in retrospect. So here we are with Backdraft, anyway, one of the big "showing off our effects work" movies from the summer of 1991, as directed by Ron Howard channeling Robert Zemeckis copying Steven Spielberg.

The film tells of two brothers, Stephen (Kurt Russell) and Brian (William Baldwin) McCaffrey, sons of a Chicago firefighter whose death was witnessed by Brian in childhood, an event depicted with slow motion and hollowed-out sound effects and aching, mournful music, because at least Backdraft tells no lies about what it is. 20 years later, Stephen is one of the toughest sonsabitches in the Chicago Fire Department, a reckless genius who plays by his own rulebook and gets results even if he takes risks that make his colleague and father figure John Adcox (Scott Glenn) freak out. Because it's only a soul-sapping cliché if it takes place in a police station, y'see. Brian, meanwhile - having made the cover of Life magazine back in '71 for the picture of himself standing dazed while holding his dead father's helmet outside the burned-out building where the elder McCaffrey met his fate - has drifted aimlessly through young adulthood and now has come to realise that his goal has always been to follow in Dad and Stephen's footsteps and prove himself a man in the fires of... well, fires. Stephen greatly fears his little brother doesn't have what it takes to hack it, and so he treats the "probie" (firefighter slang for new recruits learning the ropes) with a particular barking roughness that masks his tender concern under dictatorial cruelty, and the relationship between the McCaffreys begins to deteriorate. Will the brothers come to a new understanding of each other and find a respect for the relationship they share, to be tested in the heart of a burning building? Will they ever!

Snarking is easy, but honestly, Backdraft would be a hell of a lot stronger if that's at far as its ambitions had gone, but writer Gregory Widen instead buttressed the tired old tale of dueling brothers with a subplot in which Stephen tries to win back his estranged wife Helen (Rebecca De Mornay) and be a more present father to his son Sean (Beep Iams). Meanwhile, Brian has just reconnected with an old flame, Jennifer Vaitkus (Jennifer Jason Leigh), now working in the office of Alderman Marty Swayzak (J.T. Walsh). She convinces Brian to use her connections to get himself a safer job than the madness of rushing into burning buildings, getting himself involved in the investigatory wing of the CFD, where old vet Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro) teaches him the fine art of investigating possible arson cases. Will the brothers make hard decisions about the men they want to be, and weigh the merits of being safe and secure family men with the terrifying rush of serving the greater good at risk of life and limb? Will they ever!

Having already pressed two movies into one, Widen apparently figured "what the hell", and added a third: Brian and Rimgale's investigation reveals that a series of recent fires are indeed arson, but arson perpetrated by a real genius with fire. Consulting the unmistakably Hannibal Lectery convicted arsonist Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland), the investigators start to piece together a puzzle in which they find out how some genius firebug has been staging incredibly complex traps to trigger a very unusual type of explosion called a backdraft, in which the act of introducing oxygen into a room very quickly - by opening a door, for example - causes it to burst into flame quickly and decisively, yet the same cycle of air that creates the explosion also puts it out almost instantly, leaving just enough fire to kill whatever bastard triggered it. So this isn't mere pyromania, but specific, targeted assassinations, designed to leave no damage other than to a single victim. Will the investigators find out how this mystery is tied to the shady, hopelessly corrupt world of Chicago politics and land development? Will they ever!

In Backdraft, we see a flawless representation of a problem that had plagued summer movies before it was made and continues to plague them over two decades later: it has absolutely fantastic setpieces strung along an absolutely dimwitted script. Not just because it's cliché-ridden, though that doesn't help in the slightest: Backdraft is structurally broken at a truly remarkable degree even by the standards of Ron Howard films, given that director's insistent problem with keeping stories moving along steadily, tending to instead treat things with plodding episodic ebbs and flows; his best films (e.g. Apollo 13, Rush) don't get that way because they avoid that tendency, but because it works well in the context of the narrative. Backdraft compounds the problem: not only does it lack flow, it doesn't ever actually decide what its plot is - what the one-sentence "who is chasing what stakes and what's stopping him" logline is that describes the movie. And Christ knows, I don't want all movies to utilise the barbaric structure of Hollywood storytelling, but Backdraft is every inch a Hollywood movie and Howard a quintessentially Hollywood director; it is the very kind of project that the limiting rules were designed for. And having watched it more than once, I still can't tell you if it's "about" the brothers' patching things up, or if it's "about" Brian investigating the arson case. Because, the thing is, it's about both: basically, it takes place in two chunks, before and after Brian joins up with Rimgale, and there is no communication between those chunks. And even if there was, neither story that the film is telling in its clodhopping way justifies the film's solemn closing title card, "There are over 1,200,700 active firefighters in the U.S. today", which suggests a story about the travails of a firefighter which Backdraft has at no point since the opening scene come close to becoming.

At times, the movie on the edges is interesting: the film captures the way that ethnic stratification works in Chicago better than a lot of other movies, even if it still leans a little hard on the "Chicago Irish" stereotypes. The casual way that life in the firehouse is depicted suggests a far more nuanced and lived-in film about characters who aren't the ones we've been granted as our main subjects. These little strengths serve more to sharpen how devoid of insight most of the movie is, rather than provide a welcome respite from it.

But, the thing is, the fire scenes are great - not just, like, "this is is perfect serviceable disaster porn", but quite probably the best depiction of fiery destruction ever filmed, or that ever might be filmed for all the king's horses and all the king's CGI. Howard - or at least his second unit - film the action scenes with remarkable visual poetry: flame, as more than one character notes, is a beautiful thing like an animal, something to be loved as much as feared. And Backdraft captures that sensation beautifully, while also depicting a kind of creeping tension about what happens from moment to moment that is unlike anything else in Howard's career, and suggests that the man has a decent pseudo-Hitchcock thriller living inside him somewhere. It's mesmerising, brilliant thriller craftsmanship, and it makes for an incomprehensible viewing experience that it swaps places with the tedious human drama at such irregular intervals.

And boy, are Backdraft's humans tedious. Given nothing remotely like interesting character arcs to play, none of the actors leave a huge impression: De Niro and Leigh, usually reliable to provide a certain live-wire energy, are both sleepwalking through nothing roles, and Russell only gets one moment where he does anything besides play a gruff-talking man's man (it's when he screams, frenzied, at Brian for not staying put, and the actor allows us to understand that it's fear and love, not authoritarian bullying, doing the talking). That Baldwin is flat and uninteresting is hardly surprising, and the film elects to make him the de facto protagonist as Stephen sits out most of the last hour. Only De Mornay and Sutherland feel like they did any homework at all in building their characters, and they're both in, like, three scenes apiece.

Aesthetically, it's all over the place. Howard favors some unfortunately over-emphatic slow-motion throughout the film, and tries for an iconic feel that his skill hadn't worked up to yet by that point in his career - Russell is introduced coming out of the smokey building backlit like an alien in a Spielberg film, and it's almost comically over-serious. Hans Zimmer's score, one of the most wildly over-used in the history of film music (you couldn't watch a random sampling of 10 film trailers from the 1990s without encountering it at least a couple of times), gets points for the sheer fist-pumping flag-waving grandeur it evokes, though its a little blunt in its emotional manipulation (but hell, something needs to engender emotions, somewhere in the movie.

The highs are so, so high, and the lows so suffocating in their mediocrity, it's really impossible to make any kind of qualitative judgment about the movie as a whole: in some ways, it's essential '90s action cinema because of how great it is, and in some ways, it's essential because of how perfectly it typifies all of the boilerplate idiocy of that decade's popcorn formulas. Either way it's essential, I guess, but I can't think of another so-called essential movie that, having now watched it twice, I have so little desire to ever revisit.