'Ladder' takes easy way out

Posted: October 01, 2004

A heartfelt tribute to those who heroically risk their lives to save others, Ladder 49 fails as drama but succeeds as a "when bad things happen to good firemen" procedural. It's sensitivity training for civilians.

Director Jay Russell drops us smack into the firefighter furnace. We feel the flesh-melting heat, lung-searing smoke, and eye-scorching flames. We agonize over triage decisions and ponder the cosmic irony of a job in which a worker saves families while he risks destroying his own.

Despite this, Ladder 49 is a series of Hallmark-card platitudes, not a human portrait.

Though Russell (My Dog Skip) has top-notch actors in John Travolta as an avuncular captain at a Baltimore firehouse and Joaquin Phoenix as the firefighter he initiates, their characters are stick figures. In Lewis Colick's underdeveloped screenplay, the villain is fire, the hero is courage, and they fight to the death in the shadow cast by New York's late twin towers.

The film opens with a 10-alarm blaze at a waterside warehouse, smoke clouds blanketing the harbor. Jack Morrison (Phoenix) runs into the inferno to find people trapped on a high floor. After he rescues a man, the floor gives way, plummeting Jack into the flaming debris below.

From his command post outside, Capt. Kennedy (Travolta) works to rescue the pride of his station's rescue squad. This, as the wheezing, wounded Jack sees his last 10 years with the Baltimore Fire Department pass before his eyes.

Backdraft gives way to flashback. As we consider that Phoenix is the ideal surname for one who will rise from the ashes, we are treated not to a narrative but to Jack's Kodak moments.

First day at the firehouse. Barroom blitz. Hazing by the captain. Five-alarm fire. Hosing down blazes. Getting hosed at bar. Love at first sight. Three-alarm fire. Beer with the boys. Wedding. Barroom blitz. Christening. Posing with firehouse family. Round of Irish coffees. St. Paddy's Day parade.

These vignettes tell us more about what these guys drink than what drives them to acts of extraordinary selflessness. Altruism has something to do with it, but is there a martyr complex at work, too?

Russell hints at a compelling conflict between Jack and his spouse. She believes that he cares more about saving strangers than making sure his own kids have a father. Alas, the director leaves this scene quicker than a fireman his bed after the alarm sounds.

My guess is that after the heroism of the firefighters at the twin towers, Russell was loath to depict firemen as anything less than saints. His reluctance results in one-dimensional characterizations by everyone but Jacinda Barrett, who plays Jack's wife, Linda, with an intensity than burns hotter than any conflagration on screen.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

Ladder 49 ** (out of four stars)

Produced by Casey Silver, directed by Jay Russell, written by Lewis Colick, photography by James L. Carter, music by William Ross, distributed by Buena Vista Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 9 mins.

Jack Morrison. . . Joaquin Phoenix

Capt. Mike Kennedy. . . John Travolta

Linda Morrison. . . Jacinda Barrett

Lenny Richter. . . Robert Patrick

Tommy Drake. . . Morris Chestnut

Parent's guide: PG-13 (intense fire and rescue sequences, profanity)

Playing at: area theaters

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