Ladder 49

(2004) ** Pg-13
115 min. Buena Vista Pictures. Director: Jay Russell. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Morris Chestnut, Robert Patrick, Balthazar Getty.

As befits a Life magazine-styled look at firemen (and a post-9/11 one, at that), Ladder 49 is full of ceremony: a Catholic mass, a bestowing of medals, a wedding, a parade, a funeral, a birth. Juxtaposed baptisms by fire and water depict the everyday life-and-death struggles of heroes too often taken for granted. I have, then, no bad will, as such, against this "thank you" letter to thankless heroes. The cynical-minded might call Ladder 49 a re-hash of Backdraft, with its Irish-inflected firefighting drama at home and on the deadly job; what's more, they might call the film's timing as fiscally sound as it is well-intentioned. All I know is that Ladder 49 is conventional, lacking in depth, and reliant on the artifical tension of action scenes to goose along an otherwise watchable but dull movie.

At least director Jay Russell hands off the paper-thin characters (credit where it's due to screenwiter Lewis Colick, who also wrote Travolta's dud Domestic Disturbance) to capable actors. Joaquin Phoenix (who increasingly resembles his Signs co-star Mel Gibson) plays Jack Morrison, a firefighter whose career we track, in flashback, while Jack lies trapped in the debris of a rampaging fire. As a probationary firefighter, Jack faces a trial by you-know-what at the hands of his high-spirited fellows, including John Travolta as the chief and den mother Mike Kennedy (Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke, Balthazar Getty, Jay Hernandez, and Tim Guinee are among the other manly fire fodder). Jack's wooing of a gal named Linda (Jacinda Barrett) fills out the passing of at least a decade in Jack's life, though no one seems to change much as time hopscotches along.

One colleague horribly injured and another killed serve as buildup to Jack's life-threatening situation and Linda's worst fear. William Ross supplies a blandly heroic score (with an Irish lilt, natch), and Russell handles the action well, from the P.O.V.-cam of sliding down the pole to suit up to the torrents of flame which face the men at the end of each ride. The male bonding extends to practical jokery around the station (the Ladder 49 of the title), team-flirting at the grocery store (Jack's pick up-line: "I actually hold the nozzle and put the fire out"), carousing and karaoke ("Fire" by The Ohio Players) at the local watering hole. Travolta has little more to do than repeat the old chestnut "Firefighters run into a burning building when everyone else is running out" and smile comfortingly, though I guess them's better pickings than Robert Patrick's (he has to say, not once but twice, "I'm getting too old for this shit"). Russell fares best with his extended climax, the proof to the pudding of the observation "You get enough fires, you find God."

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