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by Jack Sommersby

"Lacks Combustion"
2 stars

The first hour zips by pretty admirably but afterwards dawdles.

In military terminology "backfire" refers to a supporting force that can readily reinforce those on the front lines of battle, but in this cinematic endeavor it's also relevant in that someone's dastardly scheme doesn't succeed the way planned and he or she faces the consequences in the end. Reviewing the movie is rather difficult because I don't want to give too much away to the uninitiated even though the overall whole isn't quite good enough to recommend. The basic problems consist of the first plot twist being revealed far too soon, and the second one at the end can easily be guessed at by the forty-five minute mark, with the padding in between fairly inconsequential. That fabulous actor Jeff Fahey, who made a winning, undeniable impression as the conniving nomadic guitarist in the fine Psycho III from the year before, plays Donnie McAndrew, a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) who keeps having nightmares about his final tour of duty - he took refuge in a trench only to find his comrades mutilated and their eyes impaled to stakes, with his backup failing to show up while he was under fire. Almost every night he wakes up screaming and sweat-drenched, with his loving wife Mara (Karen Allen) there to comfort him. Donnie's elderly aunt has been committed to an old-folk's home, and he has a dire fear of being institutionalized himself; he comes from family money and lives in a posh estate on a Puget Sound island, but unfortunately finds himself self-medicating by excessively drinking at dinner parties, thus embarrassing Mara who's doing her utmost best at keeping things together. That's about all I can reveal at this point, except to say Donnie's immense fortune comes into play, and also a third character is introduced, a hitch-hiking drifter named Reed (Keith Carradine) who Mara invites into her now-lonely life after Donnie is rendered catatonic after a particularly nightmarish episode. While Fahey and Carradine are excellent, in the pivotal role of Mara the limited Allen fails at suitably intriguing us - everything she does is on an easy-to-read surface. Allen was agreeably spunky in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but thereafter in Starman and Until September she simply didn't have the variety to make much of an impression - you kept thinking she were an understudy killing time before the real star returned to the set. (In minor roles with far less screen time, Bernie Casey, as the town sheriff, and Dinah Manoff, as Donnie's distrusting sister, manage to register a whole lot more.) The director is Gilbert Cates, whose last feature-film was the agreeable Oh, God! Book II, and he does well enough here, but Backfire lacks the tantalizing atmosphere and swank precision of the similar Masquerade that kept you rooted to your seat throughout in that you had no clear idea what was coming next. The movie isn't bad by any means, but ultimately it's negligible in screwing up a few basics it should've easily foreseen ahead of time and deftly side-stepped.

A nice try but no cigar.

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originally posted: 11/24/20 12:45:13
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  02-Aug-1987 (R)



Directed by
  Gilbert Cates

Written by
  Larry Brand
  Rebecca Reynolds

  Karen Allen
  Jeff Fahey
  Keith Carradine
  Bernie Casey
  Dinah Manoff

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