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Ladder 49 (September 30/04)

Ladder 49 is pure, unadulterated Hollywood schmaltz from start to finish - and yet the film remains kind of entertaining, albeit in a guilty pleasure sort of way. Director Jay Russell (My Dog Skip, Tuck Everlasting) was probably the wrong choice for this material, as he imbues the movie with an absolute minimum of style. And when he does break from the tried-and-true, it's to implement extremely obvious directorial choices (ie he breaks out the old shaky cam during an argument between the firefighters). Let's put it this way - Ladder 49 makes Ron Howard's Backdraft look gritty by comparison, which is really saying something.

The film is told primarily in flashback, as fireman Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) reflects on his life while trapped inside a burning building. We see Jack start out as a rookie, meet and marry his wife (played by Jacinda Barrett), and even have kids. All the while, Jack and the men in his company - including Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), Lenny Richter (Robert Patrick), and Tommy Drake (Morris Chestnut) - spend their days fighting fires and pulling wacky pranks.

Ladder 49 has already been celebrated for not including a human villain as Backdraft did, choosing instead to focus entirely on the dangers of firefighting - a choice that has both positive and negative ramifications on the film. On the one hand, this is probably a more accurate representation of what life is like for the average fireman (though it's highly unlikely they'll see this much action). This becomes problematic, though, when it becomes evident that the film is going to feature sequences of the men battling blazes every 20 minutes or so. While such moments are admittedly quite well done, there's no denying that these scenes eventually become somewhat tiresome.

Yet the film does get a few things right, particularly the camaraderie between the various characters - which feels authentic, if a little too genial (nobody gets along this well). And then there's the performances, which are undoubtedly the best thing about Ladder 49. Phoenix, stepping into the shoes of a traditionally straight-laced leading man for the first time, gives an engaging and charismatic performance that comes as something of a surprise (if only because he's best known for playing shifty, insecure characters). Travolta is good in a supporting role, while characters actors like Robert Patrick and Morris Chestnut provide expectedly reliable backup.

And while I am slightly recommending Ladder 49 - it's a mildly diverting time-killer - there's no denying that the rampant sappiness and predictability in Lewis Colick's screenplay makes it impossible to fully embrace the film.

out of

About the DVD: Buena Vista Home Entertainment presents Ladder 49 with a sleek, crisp letterboxed transfer, along with a handful of supplemental materials. The disc includes a 21-minute look at the making of the movie, a 14-minute featurette documenting the exploits of some real-life firefighters, five deleted scenes (including an awkward moment involving 9/11), an audio commentary with director Jay Russell and editor Bud Smith, and a music video. The disc also includes the requisite Disney "sneak peeks" (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, National Treasure, and Home Improvement: Season Two).
© David Nusair