|Ladder 49 (2004)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Morris Chestnut, Robert Patrick
Director: Jay Russell
It was only a matter of time after the events of 9/11 that movie studios would contrive a drama that celebrated the courageous heroics of firefighters. Jay Russell’s newest film, “Ladder 49,” is a frat-like melodrama about the lives of firemen, but by embellishing their spur-of-the-moment firefights and unyielding brotherly love, the film ultimately fails to tell the story of the real men underneath the uniform. Highlighting the life of the main character through a series of flashbacks that are draped in sappy masculinity, “Ladder 49” offers no character development and becomes extremely predictable.
The film starts off with a bang when the men of Ladder 49 enter a 12-story building engulfed in massive flames. When veteran firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) re-enters the building to rescue an unknown third victim, the room explodes in a giant fireball and Jack is sent crashing through the floor. While he waits for the rest of his team, led by fire captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), to find and rescue him amongst the debris, Jack begins to recall the events of the past 10 years as a rookie fireman moving up in the ranks, starting a family with his wife (played with little emotion by Jacinda Barrett) and coping with the loss of “brothers” in the process.
“Ladder 49” constantly reminds the audience how amazing firefighters are, but there is really no need for such brazen remarks. Most people already respect these men for their passion and instant bravery, and instead of developing the characters with natural events, the director idolizes them as martyrs throughout the countless fires that erupt within the script. Russell’s nonlinear storytelling method doesn’t help either, because each flashback slowly turns the finished product into a scrapbook of vignettes with no visible bridges between each separate memory. Phoenix has certainly had more rewarding roles in his career and even though Travolta brings depth to his character with past experience as a major supporter of firefighters, his function as the firehouse babysitter seems to be his only reason for reoccurring appearances.
Russell tries to create a story that real firefighters could look at with pride instead of embarrassment (Ron Howard’s “Backdraft”), but his story fails by leaning too heavily on sentimentality and taking cheap shots at the audience’s emotions. While “Backdraft” may have adopted a darker twist that placed the firefighter in the villain role, it still seems more realistic than a group of good-doing fraternity brothers that spend their days fighting fires and their nights drinking beer. Here’s a reality check for Mr. Russell: Firefighters have days off, too. Let’s see what one of those looks like.
The "Ladder 49" DVD isn't necessarily packed with special features like a lot of releases these days, but it's got plenty of supplemental material to please the average consumer. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, the DVD extras for the film include a full-length audio commentary with director Jay Russell and film editor Bud Smith, two featurettes, five deleted scenes and the "Shine Your Light" music video. Among the best of the set is the Making-Of documentary and the "Everyday Heroes" extra that features real stories from firefighters and their families.