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Alex Stroup, editor

Ladder 49

Disney tries to ignite box office fires with new flick

Friday, October 1, 2004
by Alex Stroup, MousePlanet editor

In many ways Ladder 49 is a surprising movie, none of which have to do with the story being told, which is rather pedestrian. A Disney movie about firefighters in a post-9/11 world creates a certain set of expectations, most of which turn out to be wrong.

Direct Jay Russell's origins in documentary filmmaking show through to good advantage. Obviously, fire is a frequent star of the movie, but this is not “porno for pyros” in the vein of Backdraft (1991). While I'm sure they're still exaggerated for the big screen (having never been in a real structure fire, I wouldn't know), the six or seven fires through the movie all feel real. This is not an action movie; there are no superhuman leaps to safety and nobody outruns a fireball only to leap to safety at the last second catching themselves after a fall of dozens of feet and sustaining no bodily injury. There is also no hot sex on a fire engine. So, to repeat, this is not a remake of Backdraft.

Russell and screenwriter Lewis Colick openly admit that Ladder 49 is essentially a tribute piece inspired by the deaths of so many firefighters on September 11, 2001. As such it would be easy to descend into maudlin introspection and dopey idolatry. For the most part though, it doesn't.

The movie opens with the Baltimore City Fire Department responding to a major granary fire on the city's waterfront. The search-and-rescue team, headed by firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), is sent in to find people trapped on the twelfth floor. After rescuing those men, Morrison becomes separated from the group and trapped when a floor collapses.

© Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

It is at this point that the flashbacks start, and while Assistant Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) directs the effort to save him, we learn the story of how Morrison got to this point from his beginning as a rookie firefighter 11 years before.

Nothing I could tell you about the events in these flashbacks will likely surprise anybody, it is all territory that has been covered many times before. The brash rookie, the esprit de corps of tight-knit groups who face danger, juggling a family with a dangerous job. But while Lewis Colick presents a story completely familiar to everybody, Russell's simplicity and respect in his staging will disarm many.

Ladder 49 has no subtext; there isn't anything to be found that isn't on the screen. This is a look at firefighters, what they do, and how it affects them and their families. Russell doesn't try to force the drama, though. His documentary past likely makes him comfortable with simply letting the characters tell the story, and while Ladder 49 is not documentary in style, it is imbued with a sense of just showing events as they happen.

The biggest quibble would be that no warts are shown; that while there is some personal conflict, everybody is a pretty good guy (and they are all guys, women are relegated to being wives and victims) acting for altruistic reasons. The closest thing to ugliness is a scene that hints at the substratum of homophobia that many claim exists in the profession, where a joke is made of the possibility that a new member of the crew might be gay. It wasn't obvious whether this was a misplaced attempt at humor by the filmmakers or a wink at a weakness.

So it is definitely a gloss, but the acting carries it over the line. Joaquin Phoenix is an interesting case, having slowly crawled out of the shadow of his late brother, River. While perhaps not the raw talent that River Phoenix was, Joaquin has a natural reticence in his on-screen interactions that always makes him feel more real, and you never feel he is just reading someone's words. Plus, the visual imperfection of his scarred lip always has the subtle effect of disarming me, making him seem more real (Steve Buscemi's crooked teeth do the same for me).

Now approaching 30, Phoenix is gaining a physical maturity that should serve him well for at least another decade. Conversely, John Travolta is trying to cling to what charisma he has left. Going into this movie, I wondered if it was possible to buy Travolta as a firefighter, as in recent years, he has put on weight and has not presented much of an image of fitness.

Weight concerns were unfounded though, as he does appear to have slimmed down (to a degree) and he is presented in administrative duties and doesn't do much firefighting. Not required to do much acting (other than acting drunk in the beginning and giving some speeches later) it was almost as if one icon was stepping aside, allowing a new one to step forward; only time will tell.

© Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Jacinda Barrett makes an impressive turn in her biggest role to date as Morrison's wife, Linda. Morrison's story is told in vignettes, with months and years passing between each and Linda transforming in each. If anything, her evolution from youngster to adult is more real than Phoenix's.

In the end, this is a movie for a specific group of viewers. It isn't great. It has no real point, and doesn't shed light on the human condition. It is on the borderline of bland, and for many it will have crossed over. Perhaps the genius of Russell in this movie is that he pulls off the near impossible in such a movie, in that you're honestly unsure what the ultimate fate of Jack Morrison will be. The realism of the story is such that you realize the ending just might not be what you expect. This is enough to keep you watching to the end. It is only in the final minutes that the film falls into a vat of sentimentality as a final montage plays to "Shine Your Light," an original song by Robbie Robertson in tribute to firefighters everywhere.

You might want to leave when this starts up to beat the line to the restroom, but otherwise this is definitely a worthy effort.

Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.


Ladder 49 is a Touchstone Pictures release.

Wide theatrical release: October 2, 2004.

Directed by Jay Russell.

Screenplay by Lewis Colick.

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Jacinda Barrett, John Travolta, Robert Patrick

Rated PG-13 for intense fire and rescue situations, and for language.

Running time: 115 minutes.

Alex's Rating: 7 out of 10


Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted “information junkie,” Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.

Click here to contact Alex.


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