‘Ladder 49’ burns itself out

[rating=2]Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Billy Burke, Jay Hernandez
Director(s): Jay Russell
Writer(s): Lewis Colick

Joaquin Phoenix fights fires in 'Ladder 49'
Joaquin Phoenix fights fires in ‘Ladder 49’

After September 11th, the national perception of firefighters was altered. At least for most of us here in New York City. While we may have recognized them as brave, the true nature of their job because undeniable in a few tragic hours. We stopped taking them for granted and recognized them for the noble men and women they are.

Ladder 49 had the distinction of being the first film to be released post-9/11 that featured fire fighters. And while it doesn’t address that day in any way, its goal is clearly to celebrate fire fighters, even more so than Ron Howard’s Backdraft did. However, where that film succeeded to at least offer a compelling story, this one faulters and ultimately collapses.

The film tells the story of one particular Baltimore fire fighter, played by Joaquim Phoenix, who becomes trapped during a deadly industrial fire. As his comrades struggle to rescue him, we learn about his past through a series of flashbacks as he joins a fire house and becomes a seasoned fire fighter. He also meets a girl, gets married, and starts a family.

Unlike BackdraftLadder 49 provides a more honest and realistic portrayal of fire fighters. In place of a convoluted murder mystery, we’re given a simple tale of a young man who learns the ins-and-outs of fighting fires. The bond of friendship that keeps the fire fighters together, and the dangers of the job that range from injury to death, are all given center stage.

The problem here, however, is that the story is so general. You get to know Phoenix’ character, but the others are horribly underdeveloped. John Travolta, as the fire house’s captain, is only passively featured. And the other minor characters get a moment here and there, but they are there purely to express the different aspects of a fire fighter’s life. They are not characters in and of themselves.

The ultimate question of the film is, of course, will Phoenix be rescued. And while I don’t want to give anything away here, I will say that the conclusion is really disappointing. It seems to leave you feeling the futility of the job, which ends up overshadowing any hope the movie tried to offer.

At first, Ladder 49 seemed interesting. The structure of the story held a lot of promise, but it’s pretty evident after the first twenty minutes that it doesn’t have anything unique to offer. It’s a well-intentioned concept that fails to deliver, mostly because while you may feel something for the characters, it’s because of what they do not for who they are.

I can respect a film that wants to honor people. In this case, Ladder 49 attempts to honor fire fighters. What it forgets to do is tell a compelling enough story in the process.

The DVD itself isn’t bad. The most interesting is the well done “Everyday Heroes: Real Stories From Real Fire Fighters”. The commentary with director Jay Russell and editor Bud Smith actually pretty insightful, but you can probably skip the “Shine Your Light” music video. And while there are a few deleted scenes, as usual they don’t really add much to the story, and it’s pretty clear why they were cut.

Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 1 hr., 55 mins.

Michael Sheridan

Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

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