Ladder 49 Review

by Laura Clifford (laura AT reelingreviews DOT com)
October 1st, 2004


Chief Michael Kennedy (John Travolta) is a third generation Baltimore fireman who personally
accompanies new rookie Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix, "The Village") into his first burning
building. Years later, when Jack, a 'pipe man,' tells Mike he wants to transfer to the more
dangerous job of 'truck man,' Kennedy cautions him, but Jack has a talent for saving lives on
"Ladder 49."

This post-9/11 paean to those who risk their lives is obviously heart felt, but its ponderously by-the-numbers execution results in a film that is emotionally unengaging. Director Jay Russell ("Tuck Everlasting") elicits mostly pedestrian performances from his ensemble cast and taints good action scenes with overt dramatic rigging.

An old industrial building is ablaze and several firefighters are inside, trying to locate two men who are not accounted for. Jack finds the second man and persuades him to lower himself on a rope to a waiting rescue bucket poised outside, but an explosion sends Jack plummeting several floors to an unknown location. Severely injured, Jack maintains radio communication with his old friend, Chief Kennedy, who is coordinating his rescue outside.
Writer Lewis Colick ("Domestic Disturbance") uses Jack's suspenseful rescue attempt as a girder from which to string flashbacks of Jack's career from his first day as an Engine 33 rookie back up to his current predicament, but except for some humorous firehouse mischief and a few well done blaze battles these scenes play out like the Kodak moments in the life of a fireman. Jack's career highs and lows are interspersed with him shyly meeting his wife, getting married and having kids whom his entire coterie fetes at backyard birthday parties. Linda Morrison (Jacinda Barrett, "The Human stain") bonds with the boys at their Irish bar then settles down with cliched wifely worries about the danger of Jack's job. There are several strong scenes. Jack's first fire leading the charge with the hose is interrupted by a stream of rats fleeing the building's upper floors and the insidious nature of fire is well realized. The later saving of a young girl on Christmas Eve gets to the heart of the holiday and the loss of a young fireman in an abandoned, condemned building weighs more heavily for the senselessness of his sacrifice. Yet Russell undercuts a climatic rescue by placing two assisting firemen behind an office window Jack's just valiantly broken through on his own. In more intimate scenes, few of the firefighters stand out from the crowd and Jack and Linda lack chemistry.
Phoenix isn't bad in the role of Jack, proffering a quiet, regular kind of guy, but he never gets us to care about him enough either. The episodic nature of the script doesn't allow any of the actors to really achieve any kind of arc. Travolta projects the right kind of charismatic leadership but fails to disappear into the role, lending some of his scenes a stilted edge. Of the entire cast, which also includes Kevin Chapman ("Mystic River"), Morris Chestnut ("Breakin' All the Rules"), Balthazar Getty ("Deuces Wild") and Jay Hernandez ("Torque"), only Robert Patrick ("Terminator 2") presents a character, Lenny Richter, who has any real depth and human shading. Patrick's Lenny has the right level of humor and camaraderie to portray one of Engine 33's two hazing roles, but he invests the character with the slightest trace of nastiness, giving him a lone wolf quality that instead of repelling the others, make them want to draw him in. A bonding moment with Lenny is a well earned one.

Production design celebrates the blue collar neighborhoods of Baltimore. Art direction and set decorators nail the firehouse environs as well as the abodes of its working class. Early scoring (William Ross, "Tuck Everlasting") has underlying harpsichord, giving it a effective retro 60's feel, but quickly falls into the cliche of Irish tinwhistle.

"Ladder 49" ends on an unexpected note, but its over reliance on images too freshly familiar and frequent from September of 2001 disconnect the viewer from its more everyday heroism. Russell's use of a fire truck to juxtapose two of life's most momentous events is an effective piece of filmmaking almost lost in the ceremony.


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