Ladder 49 Review
Ladder 49 is the codename given to the squad of Baltimore firefighters who suit up and climb into Truck 49 whenever the alarm sounds. Stationed at one of the city's busiest firehouses, under the command of Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), they respond to 4000 calls a year, from towering infernos to idiots locking themselves out of their apartments with the oven on (a fireman explains how he dissuades such callers by smashing their doors down with an axe). One member of the Ladder 49 crew is Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), who in the film's opening scene carries out a daring rescue in a factory blaze before an explosion leaves him trapped and incapacitated. As he lies in the rubble, his leg broken, waiting to be rescued himself, he and the movie look back over his ten year career, starting with the day he walked into Captain Morrison's office as a fresh-faced rookie.
The first major Hollywood film about firefighting since Backdraft in 1991, Ladder 49 sidesteps that film's melodramatic trappings and attempts to deliver an honest look at what the life of a working fireman in Baltimore is actually like. Unfortunately, the ambitions of director Jay Russell and writer Lewis Colick are not matched by their abilities. This is a film that wants to be a serious drama but has little more substance than a Jerry Bruckheimer action flick. Its shallowness prevents it working as a drama while its serious intentions kill it as an action film. Backdraft may have aimed lower but it worked on its chosen level, as a cheesy, action-packed melodrama and it's the better movie.
As hard as they try, Russell and Colick never convince us we're in a real firehouse, watching a real team of firemen. The script is too shallow and dependent on cliches, while Russell is not enough of an actor's director to work around it. In the first half of the movie, much screen time is spent trying to establish the camaraderie of the team by showing them socialising, partying, playing pranks on each other and picking up girls. Rather than use these scenes to develop the characters and relationships, Russell just plays them for easy laughs and scores them with loud rock songs, as if he were making Top Gun or Armageddon. There's far too much of this stuff: an hour into the movie, we've seen more horseplay than we have fires. The fires themselves are well staged but they're basically action scenes. Joaquin Phoenix dangling off a building and kicking a window in calls to mind Bruce Willis in Die Hard.
Crucially, the men of Ladder 49 are poorly developed as characters. Joaquin Phoenix demonstrates that he's a strong lead actor but his character, Jack Morrison, remains a two-dimensional hero figure, just like Captain Kennedy is never allowed to be more than a gruff superior officer with a heart of gold. John Travolta gets by on his charm but he's wasted in the role. Besides the two stars, only Robert Patrick as a fighting Irishman and Billy Burke as Phoenix's womanising buddy register as individuals and this is largely down to the actors. The others, including Morris Chestnut and Balthazar Getty don't emerge as characters in their own right. As Phoenix's spouse, Aussie actress Jacinda Barrett is lumbered with a two-expression role, the expressions being happy and worried.
It's hard to dislike a film that wants to pay tribute to firemen. It's thanks to our goodwill towards the profession that Ladder 49 does supply a few moments of genuine emotion. Sadly, the film-makers have blown their chance to go further than just honouring them by showing us what it's like to be them, the way Robert Altman made us feel like we were eavesdropping on a ballet troupe in The Company. All we learn from Ladder 49 is that firefighting is dangerous, firemen are very brave and the job can be tough on them and their families. We knew that when we sat down.
Last updated: 04/06/2018 10:20:00