Film Reviews: Friday, September 29, 2004
Ladder 49
Starring Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta. Directed by Jay Russell. Written by Lewis Colick. Rated PG-13.
Flaming Out

Ladder 49ís tribute to the bravery of firefighters is all wet.


We all know why Ladder 49 exists. Itís Hollywoodís post-9/11 valentine to the courage of firefighters, those brave men and women who are too often overlooked in favor of soldiers and police officers, even though they risk their lives in causes that are just as worthy. The last high-profile Hollywood film about them was 1991ís Backdraft. This movie avoids the cheesier excesses of Ron Howardís melodrama, yet it does so by adhering to a script thatís remarkably devoid of surprises or quirks or any semblance of individuality. It feels like a movie that was written by computer program.

It begins with Baltimore fireman Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) coming to the aid of a man during a high-rise fire. As he lowers the guy out a window onto a platform, the floor beneath Jack gives way, and he falls several stories. As he passes in and out of consciousness while his colleagues make their way toward him to pull him out, the movie flashes back to the various turning points in his life: his first day on the job, his tutelage under a fire chief (John Travolta), his encounters with a girl (Jacinda Barrett) who eventually becomes his loyal and worried wife, his brushes with death, and his successful rescues of people trapped by fire.

The movie tells nothing about the everyday lives of firefighters or their work that we civilians might find interesting. The conventions governing this movie are good and rigid ó you can immediately tell which of Jackís colleagues will die. The film never shows Jack or any of his fellow firemen behaving like anything other than exemplary human beings. The roles are so indistinct that you could plug any set of actors into this film and get pretty much the same result. Many actors faced with this material would phone in their performances (itís pretty much what Travolta does), but you can feel Phoenix scrambling, probing, trying different things to get a grip on his character. It doesnít work. Itís a good thing that the movie has some fires, because without them, itíd be even more lifeless than it is.

Also, the firehouse here is weirdly homogeneous. One guy says heís gay, but the revelation is quickly revealed to be bogus, because a gay character would interfere with the canned male camaraderie on display here. It is male, too ó there are no women in this unit. Nor is there more than a sprinkling of black and Latino firemen. Baltimore is a city whose population is more than 50 percent African-American, but youíd never guess that from watching this. The film operates in the same working-class Irish-American milieu thatís been exhaustively mined by hundreds of better movies.

Thereís no reason to see this movie, nor is there any particular reason not to see it. It has the most honorable intentions, but the filmmakers seem to think thatíll be enough for us. They empty the film of conflict or dramatic tension so as not to distract us from their message. All they accomplish by doing that is preventing their movie from becoming memorable in any way. Firefighters deserve much better than that. Ladder 49 is a movie thatís got too much mist in its eyes from the filmmakersí standing too close to the fire hose.

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