I don’t know when I’ve seen a movie so completely smug in its belief that its audience is on a par with Pavlov’s dogs. Ladder 49 wants to be the ultimate tribute to firefighters — or at least its makers want us to think that’s what they set out to make.
I’m not convinced their goal is actually such a noble one. Instead, I ended up with the sense that the filmmakers most wanted to cash in on the post-9/11 view of firefighters, and that to do so, they dredged up every possible cliche they could find, threw them onto paper and called the results a screenplay. Lewis Colick’s (Domestic Disturbance) script is so shamelessly by-the-numbers manipulative that it cries out for Thelma Ritter to wander in from All About Eve and remark, “Everything but the bloodhounds nippin’ at their heels.”
It’s one of those movies where you can easily spot the characters who are marked for a bad end — either by their habits and demeanor (you just know that the token smoker will buy the farm), or by virtue of being the highly billed ethnic star (should I resist remarking on the obviousness of Morris Chestnut roasting on an open fire?). Even worse, though, is the fact that it’s not even very good at this.
Perhaps presenting the story in flashbacks seemed vaguely artistic to Colick and director Jay Russell, but the structure is so badly used that you’re apt to forget the framing story, which is actually the plot! One interminable flashback goes on so long that when the film returns to the present action, it’s almost comical to find that hero Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) has made about five bricks’ worth of progress in breaking through a wall.
The basic story line involves Jack being trapped in a spectacular grain fire in a 20-story building — and, yes, the fire effects are spectacular — while Capt. Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) and his buddies try to rescue him. (Since the movie is very sober-minded and oh-so-important, it’s not hard to guess the outcome.)
In order to make all this have maximum emotional impact, we’re given flashbacks on Jack’s life as a firefighter — starting with day one. This is the film’s cue to start trotting out the caricature characters and generic conventions. We meet Capt. Mike, a genial boozer (he’s knocking back shots of Bushmills in the morning, while parading around the firehouse in gaudy boxer shorts) who invariably speaks in either one-liners or platitudes. Jack then gets the standard male-bonding, frat-boy hazing routine (you already saw most of it in the trailer) and, of course, proves himself a good guy by taking it all in the spirit of good fun.
Life gets complicated for Jack when he marries Linda (Jacinda Barrett, The Human Stain), who, in time-honored tradition, becomes increasingly concerned about the possibility that Jack will either be hurt or killed while fighting fires. While I have no doubt that this is a common thread in marriages with people in high-risk professions, it’s never persuasively developed and comes across as typical fare seen in dozens of cop movies.
And that’s ultimately the whole problem with Ladder 49: It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and it’s all on a TV-film level. There’s no real tension between the firemen. The one nod to this — some ill will between Jack and fellow firefighter Lenny (Robert Patrick, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle) — is nothing but a weak set-up for a reconciliation bit where everybody turns out to be OK fellows after all.
All the firemen are stand-up guys — good, God-fearing folks, who all seem to be Catholic and Irish (well, perhaps Chestnut isn’t supposed to be Irish). Their Irishness assures us plenty of doleful penny-whistle bits on William Ross’ soundtrack (we see bagpipes in the film, too, but we’re spared hearing them).
What emerges is little more than a greeting-card salute to firefighters — and it seems about that sincere. Technically, the film is well done (though the graying sideburns on Travolta are hardly persuasive as an indication of time passing), and the performances are as good as can be expected. Phoenix, however, continues to be too humorless and stolid to carry a film.
Maybe there’s a certain aptness to Ladder 49 being so simplistic and cliched, since Edwin S. Porter’s 1902 film, Life of an American Fireman, is often cited as the first narrative film made in the United States; but, all in all, I’d like to think that firefighters deserve something better than this.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke