Ladder 49 Review

by Robin Clifford (robin AT reelingreviews DOT com)
October 1st, 2004

"Ladder 49"

It's just another day in the lives of the firefighters of Engine House 33 as Jack Morrison (Joachim Phoenix) and his comrades rush into the upper floors of a blazing 20 story building to save three trapped people. They get two out and Jack is saving the third when disaster strikes and the floor caves in beneath him. Trapped, injured and dazed he flashes back to his first days as a rookie firefighter assigned to "Ladder 49."

There are not a lot of surprises to "Ladder 49" but it is a good, old-fashioned humanist/action movie that focuses on the true heroes of the community. The unfortunate events of 9/11 helped us regain the due respect that firefighters have earned since Benjamin Franklin established the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia back in 1735. Director Jay Russell, with the original screenplay by Lewis Colick, wears his heart on his sleeve with the heartfelt story of the life of one such fireman.

As Jack's life unfolds before us, we meet the newly graduated firefighter as he walks into his first job at Baltimore City Fire Department's Engine House 33. He is sent into the office of Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) where he finds his new boss in a drunken haze. Then, he is told that the department's priest is making his annual visit to hear confessions and, of course, as a good catholic Jack is expected to attend. When the shadowy cleric starts asking some very personal questions, Jack realizes he has been had and he has undergone his first ritual of becoming a member of the brotherhood. The life and times of Jack Morrison is the center of "Ladder 49."

The story switches at appropriate times and stages in Jack's life on Ladder 49 from his current harrowing dilemma to the events and landmarks that made up his being to that moment. He bonds with the others in the firehouse, an eclectic collection of amiable characters that are too broadly drawn but benefit from the efforts of the actors filling the roles. Soon, Jack meets and falls for pretty Linda (Jacinda Barrett) and the cycle of life unfolds - love, marriage, birth, danger, tragedy and death are all part of the fabric of the firefighter's existence.
Joachim Phoenix is proving to be a talented and capable actor that has good range of character. As Jack Morrison he is a good-natured, likable everyman who loves his job, his wife, friends and family. The script affords his character to develop into a real person, giving his life-threatening plight in the burning building a real resonance. As Jack's fate unfolds, you are both hopeful and fearful for the man in his hour of need.

The supporting cast doesn't get the chance to fully develop their characters, unfortunately, but the actors give their under drawn roles their best shot. John Travolta, the name attraction for "Ladder 49," keeps a step back and smartly gives the limelight to Phoenix. He is amusing and thoughtful as Jack's boss and good friend and injects humor as a captain who is willing to take part in station shenanigans. Jacinda Barrett gives a yeoman's performance as Jack's girlfriend and wife, Linda. Hers is the kind of role that is usually thanklessly clichéd but the actress and the script make it better than the norm.
Of the firehouse minion, Robert Patrick comes across best as Lenny Richter, putting dimension into his role as a tough, pragmatic senior firefighter who accepts the dangers and losses of his chosen profession. Morris Chestnut, Kevin Daniels, Kevin Chapman, Balthazar Getty, Billy Burke, Tim Guinee, and an underutilized Jay Hernandez make up the rest of the Engine 33 team. The actors are put through their paces and little more as they fill in the background of Jack's life.

Techs are traditional and solidly crafted. James L. Carter's photography gives both the day-to-day life of a fireman and the fast-paced tension of fighting a fire (through the eyes of the fighter) a distinct look, cool and hot. Makeup neglects to show the changes the years bring upon the characters as the story spans a decade. A little graying at Mike Kennedy's temples is the only clue that time marches on. Production design, particularly the mindless rampage of fire, does a good job in conveying the danger and confusion that a conflagration brings in its wake.

I heard mutterings of, “Well, it isn't ‘Backdraft,'" as I left the screening of "Ladder 49." My response is, yeah, it isn't "Backdraft." Nor is it meant to be. That Ron Howard film built up the inferno into a living, breathing being with malicious, hateful intent. Jay Russell and company tell a much more thoughtful story that expresses the deserved good feelings we have for the best of the best. I give it a B-.

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