Ladder 49 Review

by Homer Yen (homer_yen AT yahoo DOT com)
October 9th, 2004

"Ladder 49" Some Sparks but Little Fire by Homer Yen
(c) 2004

Who can doubt the courage and heedless sacrifice exhibited by firefighters? They are a rare breed that face implacable danger virtually every day. They are the underappreciated protectors of our community. They run into burning building while everyone else runs out.

"Ladder 49" pays great homage to these heroic men and women in a film that seems more of a tribute and less of a cinematic presentation. The opening sequence is a tense rescue operation as we meet the main character, Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), who has charged up to a higher floor of a burning grain warehouse where victims need saving and where grain dust is slowly gathering to the point where it may explode. Then the building begins to collapse, trapping Jack inside. On the outside is Kennedy (John Travolta), the seasoned fire Captain who is coordinating and marshalling all available resources to try to save his comrade and friend. It is clear from Jack's situation, half-buried and running out of oxygen, that the window of opportunity is closing fast. As his life begins to flash before his eyes, his memories of his early career tell the story of how he started as a rookie and progressed up to this point.
The movie is not so much about firefighting as it is a presentation about the character of firefighters. You can tell early on that there is a deep sense of trust and camaraderie that exists among the members of the squad. The initiation of Jack, when he starts at the fire station, is reminiscent of the kinds of jokes that frat boys play upon each other. There's a discernible brotherhood that exists. We later see him marry and the relationship is a mixture of pride for the groom and concern for the bride. You'll appreciate how many of the characters are given some dimension. Many ensemble movies tend to have a lot of people whose purpose goes unknown or underdeveloped. Because the film pays a good deal of attention to these humanistic elements, their bonds become especially affecting when the station's alarm goes off and they rush off.

The scenes where buildings burn and people need saving are all very convincing. With booming sound effects and craftily envisioned firefighting sequences, the dangers feel real and deadly. Interesting was the camera angle, which appears to be mounted on top of the helmet, that illustrates how frantic the task is and how well-coordinated the effort must be. The duty of rescuing folks is a harrowing experience, as these brave firefighters must risk their own lives to save others, but do so willingly out of loyalty to their comrades like soldiers in battle.

"Ladder 49" is a film that you'll certainly admire. But whether you'll like it is another question. It's tough to make that comment when it concerns a film centered on one of the bravest groups in our communities. Yet, a film like "Ladder 49" would probably play better in a different type of venue such as an IMAX experience or maybe a featured piece at the firefighting academy.

Grade: B-
S: 0 out of 3
L: 0 out of 3
V: 2 out of 3

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