In this era of obtrusive product-plugging in films, you never know which movie people are going to hang THIS SPACE AVAILABLE signs around their necks. So you have to wonder about Madonna, Ron Howard and producer Aaron Spelling. In Truth or Dare, Madonna drinks one brand of bottled water. In Howard's Backdraft, the firemen all drink one beer. In Spelling's forthcoming Soapdish, a soft drink logo keeps blatantly popping up.

Movies aren't TV. Theater audiences buy tickets, so plugs are another, implicit fee. Maybe producers should reduce ticket prices by, say, a quarter each time a product is shown.

Kurt Russell, William Baldwin

It would be hard to overstate the courage and skill demonstrated by people who fight fires for a living.

But it is possible to be overawed by what these people do, as director Ron Howard apparently was when he made this overwrought, giant cornball of an action film about firemen in Chicago.

The script by ex-fire fighter Gregory Widen oozes macho bravado. Good fireman Russell tells sulky brother/ bad fireman Baldwin (Flatliners) to never let a fire know he's afraid. You know right then Baldwin will end up in an inferno, glaring at the flames like Fess Parker grinning down a bear.

Part of the confused plot concerns inexplicable brotherly bickering. An arsonist is on a torching spree too. (The movie's long discussions of arsonists' chemicals and techniques are so technical they come across as gibberish.)

The never-more-than-dutiful cast includes Robert De Niro as an arson investigator, Scott Glenn as a fireman and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a laughably naive aide to a politician.

While Allen (Black Widow) Hall gets only 24th billing in the technical credits, he is the film's star, having—as special-effects creator—set up a lot of convincingly terrifying fires.

Fire fighters' heroism is the film's obsession. Yet Howard and Widen often make their characters appear less heroic than foolish. One fireman brings his son to a fire as if it were a picnic. Russell runs around blazing buildings recklessly. The insistence on personifying fire ("Let's take this bitch head-on," Russell says of a fire) makes the firemen look silly too.

There's no "win one for the Gipper" speech, but Russell, observing derring-do by Baldwin, gushes, "Look at him. That's my brother, goddammit."

You expect John Wayne to swagger out intoning, "A fireman's gotta do what a fireman's gotta do." (R)

Bruce Willis, Andie MacDowell

No need to phone ahead. This is the movie playing all the time on every screen of every theater in hell.

Brainless, witless, gutless and tasteless, it is a droning ordeal of brutish violence, dumb innuendo and such vile jokes as one based on the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger.

The film cost a reported $45 million, its cast includes Danny Aiello and Richard Grant as well as Willis and MacDowell, its producer was Joel (Lethal Weapon) Silver, its director was Michael (Heathers) Lehmann, and its writers were Steven E. (48 HRS.) De Souza and Daniel (Heathers) Waters. Given all that, this is a shamefully amateurish production.

A smirky Willis plays a cat burglar coerced into stealing a Da Vinci statue. The rest of the convoluted plot has to do with alchemy, CIA types led by James Coburn, a nun—undercover operative and a mad couple played by Grant and comedian Sandra Bernhard.

The clubbing, crotch-kicking mayhem is incessant. The acting is dismal. Willis slurs lines, and Bernhard is wooden enough to leave splinters.

To give discredit where discredit is due: De Souza and Waters never make a comic point or satirize anything. They just saddle the cast with impenetrable/insipid lines: "They think the Bay of Pigs is an herbal tea."

This, in short, is a chance to see the most hateful movie of all time. (R)

Bill Murray, Richard Dreyfuss

Those who will like this comedy about psychotherapy patient Murray and his gum-on-the-shoe relationship with supershrink Dreyfuss:

(1) Anyone who'd like to see the shrink business deflated by such pinpricks as Dreyfuss's failure to communicate with his own children.

(2) Those who enjoy poetry: "Roses are red/ Violets are blue/ I'm a schizophrenic/ And so am I."

(3) Everyone else, except Neil Diamond fans. Murray, explaining why his marriage broke up, says, "There are two types of people in the world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don't. My ex-wife loves him."

Written by Tom (Dead Poets Society) Schulman and directed by Frank (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) Oz, the film pits crazy vs. straight in trite fashion. Murray is so dependent he follows his therapist from New York City to a New Hampshire vacation home, but his irresponsible craziness is portrayed as truly attuned to life. Yet this familiar scenario is funny without anyone getting pompous about how cool the) are for seeing life's hypocrisies.

There's nice backup from Julie Hagerty, as Dreyfuss's wife, and Charlie Korsmo and Kathryn Erbe as his kids. Murray is in good hangdog hipster form; Dreyfuss is as twitchy as Herbert Lom in a Pink Panther. And Schulman deserves a loopiest line award for having Murray, explaining how he worships his therapist, say, "He's so far above us—we're like ropes on the Goodyear blimp." (PG)