(Movie Review by Donnie Saxton) There were only two things I wanted to be as a 7-year old: an NBA basketball player and a firefighter. I was too young to care that either profession would amplify my status with the ladies. It turns out that employment eligibility with the NBA requires world-class basketball ability (something I hadn’t acquired). As for my other adolescent fantasy of fighting fire — I still have no idea what it’s like, but if it’s anything like “Ladder 49”, I wouldn’t have lasted past the second call.
The movie opens with the Baltimore fire department scrambling to keep pace with an out of control inferno that has engulfed a 25-story riverfront building. Director Jay Russell (“Tuck Everlasting”) wastes no time introducing us to hell on earth through the weary eyes of a firefighter. We meet Jack (Joaquin Phoenix, “Gladiator”) as he breaks off from the group and rushes to the aid of a helpless victim. Russell captures vividly the essence of the terror suffered by those unfortunate enough to be trapped inside a crumbling, 200-degree deathtrap. Against this terror, the unique attitude of focused calm emerges from seasoned firefighters. Before this first sequence is over and after he has saved a man’s life, Jack finds himself trapped deep inside, alone, and facing death.
This is all just backdrop for a movie that plays entirely in flashback form. Jack’s peril also sets up the emotional payoff that any movie about firefighters can’t live without. Basically, Jack’s flashbacks play as several short stories filling us in on who he is and how he got here. We learn about how he met his wife and the development of their romance. We meet his fellow firefighters, including his straight shooting captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta, “The Punisher”). These shorts provide us with insight into how these men work together under the kind of stress that only the strongest among them survives.
Travolta and Phoenix both fit neatly into the skin of their characters. Captain Mike Kennedy is an all-American guy, as his surname suggests, and becomes Jack’s mentor from Jack’s first day as a probationary trainee. Travolta’s character spends the bulk of the flashbacks showing Jack the ropes while in the present he desperately coordinates efforts to save Jack. It is this emotional bond between Kennedy and Jack forms the core of a film that wears its emotions on its sleeve.
Using the flashback construction for “Ladder 49” was a good storytelling technique by screenwriter Lewis Colick (who also wrote “Domestic Disturbance” starring John Travolta). The flashback format was once a screenwriter’s favorite, but has largely given way to timeline splintering storytelling made popular by the success of “Pulp Fiction” and other films of Quentin Tarantino. Jack’s flashbacks are extremely effective because they organize how we feel and identify with Jack in a way that avoids shoveling a landslide of emotion into the last scene. I can’t remember a recent film that has used it so effectively.
As we periodically revisit Jack in the present as he slips into graver and graver danger, each flashback provides us with a sharper picture of Jack’s life and consequently we develop a deeper emotional connection with him. Because we know what awaits Jack, the scenes sampled from his life are poignant and moving, even if a little too much forced irony bleeds through. All of these individual pieces are a bit of an emotional roller coaster, yet the movie manages to stay on the tracks most of the time.
While some of the heavy-handed dialogue might have benefited from a good douse from Jack’s fire hose (consider the movie’s tag line: “A bond forged by fire is never broken”), on the balance “Ladder 49” sidesteps falling into sappy melodrama and delivers conviction instead. Like “Backdraft”, the last major film devoted to the art of fighting fires, “Ladder 49” merges the world of firefighting into a tried and true movie formula and sells it to us with a straight face. In fact, I found it to be more effective as a tribute to firefighters rather than as a film.
Unfortunately, the close of the movie is irreparably disturbed when the audience is patronized with an ill-conceived attempt at an overly happy ending. Following 111 minutes of a decent film portraying the service and sacrifice of firefighters, the last 4 minutes are devoted to still pictures of Travolta, Phoenix and the rest of the crew hamming it up for the camera against a soundtrack of Robbie Robertson singing “Shine Your Light.”
After what we have just experienced onscreen, this force-fed sunshine in the name of a happy ending plays like a public service announcement and feels more than a little ridiculous. My sense is that someone probably gave protest but was rendered powerless in the wake of studio prodding to send the audience off with a smile. This movie earned its final silence and deserved to go in peace.
Jay Russell (director) / Lewis Colick (screenplay)
CAST: Joaquin Phoenix …. Jack Morrison
John Travolta …. Captain Mike Kennedy
Jacinda Barrett …. Linda Morrison
Robert Patrick …. Lenny Richter
Morris Chestnut …. Tommy Drake