Ladder 49 (2004) / Drama-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language and sexuality
Running Time: 105 min.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke, Balthazar Getty, Tim Guinee, Kevin Chapman, Jay Hernandez
Director: Jay Russell
Screenplay: Lewis Colick
Review published October 6, 2004
Just like the firemen that the story follows, Ladder 49 tells its story in the most workmanlike of fashions, eschewing all pretense to be some slick action vehicle by investing most of its energy in building up the characters. This isnít a plot-driven film about something in particular. The creators only mean to show the life of a crew of firefighters, their camaraderie, ambitions, mishaps, and the sacrifices they each make on a daily basis. Along these lines, Ladder 49 is a success, as the message is definitely delivered. Every firefighter out there puts life and limb on the line to try to minimize damage and save as many lives as possible. The post 9/11 atmosphere will probably make this all the more resonant in the mind of many viewers.
Joaquin Phoenix (Signs, Gladiator) plays firefighter Jack Morrison, who starts off as a green recruit and blossoms into a brave hero as the years pass while in his fire department in Baltimore. Jack questions whether or not its worth sacrificing himself day in and day out since starting a family, as he sees the perils of the job, and ultimate toll that has been taken with some of his fire fighting brethren, who are frequently injured or sometimes killed. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, as Jack faces his most difficult challenge, trapped in a blazing inferno of a building with seemingly no way out.
Ladder 49 is nicely directed by Jay Russell, director of some of the better family films to come out in recent years, Tuck Everlasting and My Dog Skip. Not every scene pushes forward a plot, but they all contribute to the overall experience. As we watch Morrison in peril at the beginning of the film, we feel very little for his character, but by the end of the film, his predicament becomes more powerful, as we begin to understand what this one man means to so many his comrades, his family, and the community as a whole.
If you like dramas that lead with the heart more than the head, Ladder 49 is an emotional ride, showcasing the ups and downs, the good and the bad. Strong performances by Phoenix and John Travolta (The Punisher, Basic) will please their fans, but I was especially impressed with the work done by Australian actress Jacinda Barrett (The Human Stain), who gives her role a realistic complexity that drives the scenes of Morrisonís home life very well. Itís not anything artistic, and it is extremely predictable, but whatever it lacks in originality is more than made up for in the emotional delivery.
©2004 Vince Leo