Ladder 49

Ladder 49 is competently made, has some decent performances, and occasionally ignites the screen with its pyrotechnic displays. It also plays it safe, which is a big mistake. Packaged and marketed like heroic action figures, Ladder 49 does a good job of putting firemen up on pedestals. It’s not a difficult task. Anyone willing to rush into a dangerous situation deserves our respect and reward.

Which is what makes Ladder 49 so frustrating. Except for a couple of flickering moments, this tribute to heroes is a slow burn, a commonplace melodrama stocked with combustible supporting characters and a flashback framework that constantly drags you out of the story.

More frat house than firehouse, Ladder 49 attempts to explore the off-duty psyche of people who put their life on the line for a living. Most of it involves pranks, drinking and screwing, which would be fine if writer Lewis Colick were willing to toss new kindling on the fire. Instead, he turns on one of those gas-powered logs where everything is safe and controlled.

Ladder 49 is the family-friendly version of what could have been a tough, gritty film. The film could take a cue from FX Network’s Rescue Me, the Denis Leary firefighter series that never flinches. Not only does Rescue Me effectively explore the wounds of September 11, it shows men and women who aren’t afraid to be men and women. The language, sex, violence and horror in Rescue Me seems more real and devastating than anything in Ladder 49, and it’s on cable.

Occupying the highest rung of Ladder 49 is Joaquin Phoenix as Jack Morrison, a fireman trapped inside a warehouse conflagration. As his Captain (played by John Travolta) and fellow firemen diligently work to find and save him, Jack takes a few moments to reflect on his life, how he met his wife, joined the department, learned first hand the highs and lows of being a hero. Pretty traditional stuff, played out with the best intentions by the cast.

Travolta is effective as the company Chief, while Jacinda Barrett smiles pretty and looks worried as Jack’s wife. The rest of the cast fade in and out as needed, only stepping up to the plate whenever the film needs a sacrificial lamb, either as a victim or the victim of a joke. These folks may share the same passion and living space, but you never feel their bond extends beyond the written word.

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The Slow Burn of Ladder 49


Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke, Balthazar Getty. Directed by Jay Russell. Rated PG-13. 114 Minutes.


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