Joaquin Phoenix as Jack Morrison
John Travolta as Captain Mike Kennedy
Jacinda Barrett as Linda Morrison
Robert Patrick as Lenny Richter
Morris Chestnut as Tommy Drake
Billy Burke as Dennis Gauquin
Balthazar Getty as Ray Gauquin
Jack Morrison is a veteran firefighter working to rescue trapped workers at a large industrial fire. When he risks his own life to save a trapped man, he becomes trapped himself. As other firemen work to rescue him from the rubble and flames, he reflects back over the previous ten years of his life and how he got to the place he’s in, both literally and figuratively.
It may seem really obvious to say, but Ladder 49 is a movie about firefighters. Specifically it is about being, and what it takes to be, a firefighter. It is an earnest look into the physical and emotional requirements (and the toll it takes) of being the type of person who, as the movie says several times, ‘runs into a fire while others are running out.’
The movie is very sincere in its portrayal of firefighters and their lives. While it occasionally resorts to cliché (hazing the rookie on his first day, the rookie’s first fire, etc.) it does so earnestly and without ever falling into melodrama.
The highlights of the film are the actual firefighting scenes themselves. They are harrowing and very real. Firefighters are real heroes who face real dangers every day, and Ladder 49 is at its best when it showcases that fact.
Joaquin Phoenix is steady as Jack, and he has excellent chemistry with John Travolta as his experienced Captain, and Jacinda Barrett as his wife. The acting is at its best in the large, ensemble scenes.
At its heart, it’s a film that celebrates firefighters and what they do. These men and women often do their job without recognition, or the desire for it, and the fact that Ladder 49 tries to put their heroism front and center without embellishment is commendable.
Unfortunately, the same lack of embellishment is the film’s biggest problem. The old saying goes ‘drama is conflict’ and Ladder 49 offers little of either outside of the fires themselves. While it valiantly tries to stay away from melodrama, it produces the unfortunate side effect of making the film itself bland. In an effort to show the professionalism of the firemen (who put all personal problems aside when they climb on the truck), the character conflicts that do exist are fairly low-key and are all very quickly resolved, usually within the same scene in which they arise.
As a result, all of the narrative drive of the film is built by comparing Jack’s present situation with his past, with few conflicts carrying over from flashback to flashback. The real meat of the film is in his past and it is easy during long flash backs to forget about his predicament. Also, by seeing who is trying to rescue Jack and who isn’t there, it’s fairly easy to guess which of Jack’s friends are going to die right from the start.
Ladder 49’s other big drawback is its lack of characterization. Except for Jack no one else in the film is very well defined, and it often falls back onto types (the funny best friend, the rookie-hazing vet, the caring-but-worried wife, etc.). The actors are good, and make the best of what they’ve got, but what they’ve got is very thin. In a comedy or action film, where other elements can distract from a lack of characterization and keep things entertaining, that’s permissible. In a drama, where the film is built on its characters and their conflicts, it sucks the life out of the story.
The Bottom Line:
All that aside, if you’re in the mood for a sincere celebration of the life of a firefighter, this is the film for you.
Ladder 49 is rated PG-13 for intense fire and rescue situations, and for language