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With: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut
Written by: Lewis Colick
Directed by: Jay Russell
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense fire and rescue situations, and for language
Running Time: 117
Date: 09/20/2004

Ladder 49 (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Fighting Fire with Mire

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If Ladder 49 had been made at any other time, it would haveinvolved a crew of fearless firefighters hot on the trail of a serialarsonist. One of the firefighters -- the youngest -- would fall madly inlove with a girl who would subsequently be kidnapped by the bad guy justin time for a nail-biting finale.

But, undoubtedly greenlit in the ultra-patriotic wake of 9/11, Ladder 49 instead acts as a sober -- and sometimes tragic -- celebration of heroism.

As directed by Jay Russell (a veteran of the severely mediocre family films My Dog Skip and Tuck Everlasting) the film never dares to take a false step, nor does it risk offending any real life heroes or the people who love them. As a result, it's nearly strangled to death.

On the plus side, it does occasionally get away with some very effective old-fashioned melodrama.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Jack Morrison, the fresh-faced rookie of a Baltimore firehouse who gamely falls for the various pranks his truckmates play on him. During the course of ten years, he earns the trust of his fellows as well as that of his big-hearted but stern chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta). At the same time, he falls in love with the delicately beautiful Linda (Jacinda Barrett), marries her and turns out four kids.

This story is presented in flashback while Jack is trapped in the center of a blazing building, having fallen several stories through a collapsed floor into a largely inaccessible area.

Phoenix gives a terrific performance as a soft-spoken working class mug who won't or can't articulate his feelings, and Travolta matches him in a warm father figure role, completely juxtaposing some of the nasty, sneering bad guys he's played lately (The Punisher, Swordfish, etc.).

Unlike 1991's Backdraft, the new film is unimpressed with pyrotechnics; it just wants the fires to look real. They flicker randomly and artlessly, producing lots of smoke and rubble. Russell apparently modeled his various "fire" sequences after real fires, so that no two are alike and none has the roar of scripted drama.

Instead, he saves that for the rest of the film, written by Lewis Colick (Unlawful Entry, October Sky). We get the expected scenes of Jack bonding with Mike, the various firefighters bonding at family barbeques, Linda expressing worry over Jack's job, and the boys grimly fighting with each other after a tragic accident.

However, I confess I got a little misty at the scene in which a girl whose life Jack has saved presents him with a medal and a hug.

That said, Ladder 49 ultimately comes across as an average, perhaps mildly displaced, movie, but not necessarily a bad one. The flat material moves along without any serious missteps or stalls, but also without taking any surprise detours.

Still, this polite, reverent approach allows the film to deconstruct these firefighters and present them as ordinary guys, but without diving so far into gritty realism as to strip away their heroism. Ladder 49 gets to have it both ways.

DVD Details: Touchstone's new DVD comes with an "enhanced home theater audio mix," "Everyday Heroes: Real Stories from Real Firefighters," deleted scenes, a making-of featurette, a music video (Robbie Robertson's "Shine Your Light"), and an audio commentary track by director Russell and editor Bud Smith. The disc is THX approved and comes with a 5.1 surround audio mix, plus an optional French language track and optional French and Spanish subtitles. The film is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.

Best Buy Co, Inc.