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Dustin Putman

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Ladder 49 (2004)
2 Stars

Directed by Jay Russell
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke, Balthazar Getty, Tim Guinee, Kevin Chapman, Spencer Berglund, Brooke Hamlin, Marja Allen, Jay Hernandez, Kevin Daniels, Steve Maye, Robert Lewis
2004 – 116 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for intense situations and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 1, 2004.

In the wake of 9/11, "Ladder 49" comes as a love letter to firefighters past and present, and a sincere one, at that. Without any direct—or indirect—references to that tragic day in 2001, however, director Jay Russell (2002's "Tuck Everlasting") and screenwriter Lewis Colick (2001's "Domestic Disturbance") do away with the topic's possible social and historical relevance and focus strictly on the basis of what it means to be in the profession and the sacrifices that are made to save lives. This is, indeed, a valid angle which to form a story around, but the problem is that "Ladder 49" barely has any story to speak of, the makers content to pander to its audience of firefighters without giving much thought to basic cinematic needs, like characters, writing, and a narrative.

An extensive series of flashbacks as firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoeix) lays trapped in a burning building after the floor collapsed, "Ladder 49" takes the viewer on a walk down memory lane with the conceivably doomed hero. We see Jack as a squeaky-clean, eager-to-learn rookie on his first day at the Baltimore City Fire Department, getting pranked by his fellow co-workers as a getting-to-know-you initiation. We see his adrenaline fueled and his passion for the job ignited during his first big fire, and the camaraderie of he and his new buddies as they drink afterwards at the local pub. We see the respect and friendship that grows between himself and the encouraging Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta). We see Jack's first encounter with the lovely Linda (Jacinda Barrett), and their subsequent marriage, and the family they soon have formed. And we see Linda eventually get worried after seeing men Jack works beside severely injured or even dead, and Jack torn between doing what he loves and compromising his profession out of respect for his wife and two children. Eventually, it comes time to learn the ultimate fate of Jack, who is doing all that he can to escape the blaze, while his men try to locate him from the outside.

"Ladder 49" avoids audience suffocation while wearing its heart on its sleeve because director Jay Russell does capture a certain reality that comes with fighting fires, risking your life, and wading through the flames and heavy smoke to save a stranger in peril. Even as the picture narrowly lifts above a maudlin level, it remains roughly akin to a rock power ballad. Fittingly, it is this genre of music—and occasionally some nostalgia-filled Irish strings courtesy of composer William Ross—that is relied upon to underscore all of the drama-heavy moments. There is a passing effectiveness to it all, much like the way hearing a song can bring out an emotional response, but those same feelings evaporate as soon as the film is over.

There is a lack of heft, and a tendency toward the episodic, that becomes all the more wearisome as "Ladder 49" presses forward. By the second hour, a figurative neon sign has revealed that no real story exists, and that the people onscreen are simply going through the repetitive motions until the weepy, uplifting finale arrives. The formula with which director Russell uses to weave his scenes lack dynamism and spontaneity, going around in a cycle that doesn't break tradition. Jack and his co-workers hang around the department, chatting it up and having some laughs until they are called to a fire. Jack has some heart-to-heart conversations with varying people, depending on who needs one the most at any given time. They drink at the bar. And in between is the love story between Jack and Linda. No one sequence is haphazardly pulled off—Russell intelligently bypasses stamping exclamation points to the ends of his potentially clichéd moments and goes for a tone more natural and less overbearing—but there are also no tangible conflicts facing the characters to pull viewers through and keep them absorbed.

Joaquin Phoenix (2004's "The Village") and luminescent find Jacinda Barrett (2003's "The Human Stain" and, amazingly, MTV's "The Real World: London") anchor the picture as much as they can. Phoenix looks like he knows what he is doing when faced with a burning building, but there is also a soft-spoken, earnest intensity in his speech and eyes that make him one of the most unconventionally arresting young actors in film today. His initial courtship of Linda, first with a shy hesitancy and then with more confidence when he realizes she likes him, is quite sweet, and Phoenix and Barrett make a wonderful pair. As for Barrett, she is not only beautiful, but also has a mind and a smart instinct in the way she portrays Linda as a woman with valid concerns for her husband's safety rather than someone who is a nagger because the script demands it. Finally, John Travolta (2004's "The Punisher") brings authoritativeness, but also accessibility, to his supporting part as Captain Mike Kennedy. The rest of the actors, filled with some very high talent, are so peripherally written that they don't really bear mentioning (check the above cast listing).

"Ladder 49" is a skillfully directed drama, a couple of the action setpieces forcefully and credibly executed, but it is also an unmemorable one. We find ourselves caring about what happens to Jack, and what it may or may not mean to his loving family—thanks mostly to Joaquin Phoenix's resolutely strong turn—even as nearly everything else within the middling story lacks depth and, therefore, fails to gain our sympathies. So heartfelt is it that it feels like a shame to have to criticize it, but, alas, this is far from the "be-all-end-all" of fire-and-rescue motion pictures. Without a tightly conceived narrative, and with a neglect to the development of most of its characters and their individual stories, "Ladder 49" leaves the viewer respectfully indifferent by the time the last shot's black-and-white freeze frame fades to the credits. This is a film that loves and respects the country's firefighters, but makes the mistake of not getting to know them in a meaningful or substantial way.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman