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Is Robert De Niro squandering his talent?

Is Robert De Niro squandering his talent? Viewers of ”Backdraft” and ”Guilty By Suspicion” wonder whether the Raging Bull is aging well

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Is Robert De Niro squandering his talent?

Watching Robert De Niro act used to be like hearing the best rock band in the world: an experience that hit you somewhere between elation and sheer terror. In his great ’70s films for Scorsese, De Palma, and Coppola, you knew that his keyed-up characters would eventually have to explode and that their detonation would reveal a white-hot core of despair. You just never knew when, or how, and the rush was in the waiting. Alone among movie stars, De Niro could be truly, frighteningly unpredictable.

These days, you can’t even predict the unpredictability. Audiences don’t know anymore whether they’re going to get De Niro hot or cold in any particular movie, and while the past five years have seen him in more roles than ever, few have had the impact of his earlier parts. Maybe he’s coasting on his rep. Maybe he needs money for his film-production/restaurant complex in New York City and doesn’t much care how he gets it. The truth is that for every Awakenings or Cape Fear, there’s a Backdraft, in which De Niro gets only enough screen time to show up the rest of the cast, or a Guilty By Suspicion, in which he gets virtually all the screen time and barely registers on film. It seems almost as if he’s using our expectations to tease us with suspense, to spark a dull plot. Sometimes, though, the sparks never catch, and you have to slog through Falling in Love (1984) and The Mission (1986) before you finally reach that point in The Untouchables (1987) when his Al Capone eyes an errant minion and reaches for the bat. Then we remember why we prize him. He’s the madman at the banquet.

He brings enough madness to Backdraft to make you wish his were the main character. Director Ron Howard and executive producer Brian Grazer stumbled on a good, simple idea — an action drama about firemen — but apparently decided that a grabby concept and nifty pyrotechnics were all they needed. So the story is happy Hollywood hogwash pitting brothers Kurt Russell and Billy Baldwin in a battle to find out, as they used to say on Saturday Night Live, ”Quien es mas macho?” If you watch old movies, you’ve seen Jimmy Cagney and Pat O’Brien in this plot, even saying almost exactly these lines, and the usually honest Howard films it with the hollow fraudulence of a beer commercial.

Two things make Backdraft worth a rental, though: the surreal fire effects — more overwhelming in theaters, they’re still impressive on video — and De Niro as Don Rimgale, the arson investigator who becomes Baldwin’s mentor. Showing as little patience for the story line as his character does for city bureaucrats, De Niro lasers right through the bum dialogue. There’s a brief scene in which Rimgale changes his shirt and we see the welter of scars on his chest and back — we understand he has been burned literally as well as figuratively. That glimpse of past explosions carried, hidden, into the present dovetails with De Niro’s screen persona, and the actor is smart enough to use it.

Would that David Merrill, the Hollywood director he plays in Guilty by Suspicion, had a trauma in his closet. Too few movies have directly confronted the Hollywood blacklist of the early ’50s, and Guilty, producer Irwin Winkler’s debut as a writer-director, is flat enough to ensure that there probably won’t be many others soon. Winkler gets his Tinseltown details right, but he’s not much with actors: The solid cast either underplays woozily (Annette Bening as Merrill’s wife, George Wendt as his friend) or whips up a hammy froth (Patricia Wettig as a neurotic actress).

In such movies as The Godfather Part II and 1989’s underrated Jacknife, De Niro has made stillness completely compelling. Here he internalizes so deeply that nothing ever floats to the surface. Merrill’s a top director whose career goes into free-fall when he refuses to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee — he’s meant to be an apolitical artist who learns to take sides. But De Niro, who in interviews has called the character ”simple” and ”unflashy,” makes Merrill so average he’s generic. Part of the problem is that the driven Merrill lives almost entirely for moviemaking but only once do we see him in his element on a set (where his brusque authority is immediately apparent). Guilty by Suspicion is the story of a man biding his time in enforced idleness, and truth to tell, it’s boring.

It didn’t have to be, of course. If the script had grounded any of the characters in human specifics — if these people were more than a Hero, his Wife, his Best Friend — we’d be with them every step of the way through their hell. But we never even learn what kind of movies David Merrill directs. How are we supposed to know enough to care about him?

Ironically, Guilty crackles to life only in two scenes involving a character played by none other than De Niro’s greatest director, Martin Scorsese. So quickly does the star respond to Scorsese’s chattering intensity — you can see his eyes light up with challenge — that you begin to understand why De Niro, a perplexing, visceral visionary of a performer, can sometimes fail to tap his gifts. More than most actors, he may need a fellow madman behind the camera.

Backdraft: C+; Guilty: C-

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