Ladder 49

cast: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, and Balthazar Getty

director: Jay Russell

105 minutes (12) 2004
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Buena Vista DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Martin Drury

Fire-fighter Jack Morrison and the crew of the ‘Ladder 49’ fire-truck speed to the scene of a factory blaze in Baltimore. Occupants trapped in the building by the debris and destruction caused by the flames are rescued, one by one. All is well. Until the floor gives way and Jack falls head first into the unknown. Now it’s up to Jack’s friend and mentor, the chief of the fire station, to take matters into his own hands and rescue his recruit. As precious seconds tick away, Jack’s life is replayed on screen. We see him meet the girl of his dreams in the supermarket and fall in love. We see him become a rookie firefighter. We see him bond with his crewmates and we see him become a father.

The dangers of the job are exposed in all-too-grim reality and never before has a film shown in such graphic and often horrendous detail precisely what it is like to be a fireman. This is a film about unsung, everyday heroes who risk their lives not because it’s in their own interests to do so but because they have a calling rather than an occupation.

This film should be amazing. It isn’t. The special effects are awesome and one could argue that the real star of the motion picture is actually the fire as, whenever the flames show up, the audience pay attention and end up on the edge of their seats. Yet, the flashback scenes of Jack’s life are tedious and feel artificially lengthened out to aid the fledgling plot of the movie. It’s nice that Jack falls in love. It’s nice that Jack has a great many friends. It’s also nice that Jack has now become a father. Nice, but not very interesting. Jack is a hero. But we are only being asked to concentrate on him being such a hero because he now finds himself in danger of loosing his life. All the other fire fighters are drawn as one-dimensional characters. Travolta plays the fire chief as if the character were an American general in Vietnam. He shouts at his crew to “pull themselves together” in the heat of battle. He orders them around but let’s them have a bit of time off to rest and unwind. He is strict, but strict with a heart. But I saw John Travolta. I didn’t see an ordinary man doing his best to run a fire station in difficult, heart wrenching circumstances.

Ladder 49 should have been an explosive encounter with the heroes of the hour. Instead, it ended up as a This Is Your Life special for one man who fell through the floor.

DVD extras include: On Location. Fire Academy: Training The Actors. Anatomy Of A Scene: The Warehouse Fire. Why We Do It: Real Stories From Real Fire Fighters. Some deleted scenes, and a Shine Your Light music video, as well as the usual audio commentary track.