Ladder 49

on October 01, 2004 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
A seriously injured firefighter contemplates his past as he waits to be rescued in "Ladder 49", a manipulative, grossly sentimental film that reduces the complexities of the heroes who save lives to formulaic pap. As Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) lies in great pain in a gutted building, he remembers his first day as a rookie fireman, his camaraderie with his fellow firefighters, his family life and his difficulty in maintaining the enthusiasm he originally felt for his profession. This could all have been grist for a gritty, honest movie, but the filmmakers refuse to do more than idolize the firefighters and what they do. Dramatically, one hungers for more than just simple homilies to the courageous sprit.

Contrast "Ladder 49" with "Rescue Me," Denis Leary's cable TV series, which doesn't skimp on the heroism but bravely also casts the firefighters as a misogynistic, misanthropic, even racist, bunch. It's a human portrait and it's what is missing from the movie. Instead, we get bland scenes of Morrison and pals fighting giant fires, saving people and occasionally relaxing in the firehouse. (Unrealistically, there aren't any mundane, non-life-threatening fires for the guys to put out.) None of it comes to life, despite a few attempts by the always interesting Phoenix to get at the residual anger and guilt that Jack feels toward his wife's worries about his safety. There aren't even any of the inventive stylistic touches that Ron Howard brought to "Backdraft," in which the fires seemed to have a personality of their own. "Ladder 49" is content to skim the surface, wringing false tears out of its audience and leaving no indelible impression. The laudable subjects of this film deserve better. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett and Robert Patrick. Directed by Jay Russell. Written by Lewis Colick. Produced by Casey Silver. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for intense fire and rescue situations, and for language. Running time: 113 min

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