Director: Jay Russell
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke
Written by: Lewis Colick
Running Time: 115 mins
Release date: 21st January 2005
Movies about firefighters are always tricky beasts. We all know and appreciate the difficult and sometimes dangerous job they perform and we salute their bravery, for I couldn’t enter a burning building and risk my life day after day, with that knowledge that everyday could be your last. What happens when they become the target for filmmakers is that they enter a world of cliches. Ladder 49 is one such film. It has its heart in the right place, a celebration of the men and women who fight fires but it ticks all the cliche boxes in the process.
Firefighter Jack Morrison is part of a team tackling an enormous blaze in a warehouse when he falls and is trapped. While lying in the dark, he starts to reflect on his time in the service, from his humble beginnings as a rookie, being teased and picked upon by his fellow team but guided by the watchful eye of Captain Mike Kennedy, who sees Morrison grow from a wet-nosed newbie to an outstanding firefighter willing to risk his life, while building a loving, if nervous family with his wife, Linda. The more he risks, the more the challenges and the possibility of him not returning home.
Director Jay Russell doesn’t waste any time in getting the show off with a bang. The films starts with this enormous fire in the warehouse, with massive of flames and huge explosions, as Jack and the team climb the metal stairs to put out this inferno. The setting is very reminiscent to that used in the previous fire fighting movie, Backdraft. While Ron Howard’s film mixed a family drama with a thriller, here we have a straightforward family drama, the family being both Jack’s personal and working kind. This also proves to be problematic.
It’s very episodic. We see the team laughing, playing pranks on each other, drinking and being jovial but then putting on their serious faces when sent into battle, while Jack’s personal relationship with Linda, seen from their first meeting in a supermarket through to marriage and having kids, is a far more serious affair, as his wife worries about the safety of her husband (as you would). having just snippets of their lives, we don’t really get a full picture and so it becomes increasingly melodramatic and, I hate to say it, rather dull.
The performances are surprisingly restrained considering who are on screen. Joaquin Phoenix underplays the whole thing and it’s one of those rare occasions when he is playing a regular guy without any trappings. It’s quiet and it’s subtle, something you don’t normally connect with Phoenix. John Travolta also seems to have the reins pulled in as his Captain. he sometimes overplays the comedy aspect, being the boss with a sense of humour but on the whole this isn’t the Travolta of Face/Off and Broken Arrow but a much more refined Travolta.
So as the film trundles along, we get the deaths, the heartbreaks, the fights, the rewards, the loss of friends, all those things you would expect to see in a film like this and so it holds no surprises. Even the finale lacks any real shocks and so while it desperately dishes out the emotions, you find yourself feeling rather cold to it all because of it’s lack of surprise or suspense. Added to that the obvious, stirring anthem at the end (even if it is the excellent Robbie Robertson performing it).
Yes, it’s a very honourable attempt to place fire fighters on a pedestal to be worshipped but if it hadn’t had relied so heavily on well-worn cliches and over dramatic fire sequences, we would have a film that gives a big up to those people. Instead we have a spectacle that offers nothing new and while it passes the time, it is nothing more demanding than that.
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