When a movie rolls into town hot on the heels of enormous Hollywood hype, it's always hard to live up to preconceived notions. And, as unfair as it may seem, my main disappointment with "Backdraft" has more to do with what I thought it would be than with what it is.

What I expected was a serious exploration of the day-to-day lives of ordinary firefighters, even if, within expected Hollywood parameters, they were thrust into out-of-the-ordinary situations.

Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Gregory Widen seem to aspire to serious notions, but they are constantly sidetracked by soap opera cliches and slam-bang pyrotechnics. (Though it must be said that the many fire scenes are spectacular.)

Taking a page from Hollywood formula storylines that go back to the '30s, the main plot has two feuding brothers assigned to the same Chicago fire station. Kurt Russell is the older brother, following in the footsteps of his famous firefighter father as an acknowledged hero, though he's also so reckless his long-suffering wife (Rebecca DeMornay) has kicked him out. William Baldwin is the aimless younger brother who decides to give firefighting a shot.

But Russell gives Baldwin such a bad time that he takes a job assisting Robert De Niro, an arson investigator working on a sophisticated fire-bomb case. At one point, De Niro and Baldwin visit a convicted arsonist (Donald Sutherland) who bargains for personal information before helping them find the arsonist they seek, a la Hannibal Lecter of "The Silence of the Lambs."

Other characters include a veteran who was the best friend of Russell and Baldwin's father, played by Scott Glenn; another rookie, played by Jason Gedrick; Jennifer Jason Leigh as an old flame of Baldwin's; and J.T. Walsh as a corrupt alderman. They are all good, but among the too many plot lines, De Niro's is the most fascinating, and, as you might expect, it gets the least screen time.

As mentioned, the fire sequences are truly amazing — so much so that they overwhelm every other aspect of the movie, especially in the hair-raising climax that goes way over the top in terms of cliffhanger heroics. Too often this looks like "Indiana Jones and the Building of Fire" — complete with a bombastic musical score accompanying the action.

"Backdraft" is rated R for considerable gore, along with violence, profanity, some locker room nudity and a silly comic sex scene aboard a fire truck.