"Ladder 49," set in present-day Baltimore, marshals the talents of Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta and a series of exploding fireballs to tell the story of Jack Morrison, a dedicated firefighter and family man who, upon getting trapped in a flaming warehouse, uses the downtime until rescue to celebrate the moments of his life.
As a loving tribute to the courage and sacrifice of firefighters, it's first-class. As a movie, it's a TV show. Still, it's always hard to criticize a film that wraps itself in the woolly blanket of real people's heroism. It's meant to be a homage, and it plays like one. Medals are awarded; speeches are given. But the whole thing goes on a little too long and devolves into an evening spent with somebody else's scrapbook.
"Ladder 49" kicks off, like an episode of "Third Watch," amid wailing sirens, hovering choppers and the kind of rousing music that often leads to teeth-grinding. Jack and his engine company rush into a blazing warehouse to rescue a trapped worker. The man is saved, but Jack gets stuck inside. Upon hearing this, his mentor, Capt. Mike Kennedy (Travolta), lets a flicker pass through his steely-eyed squint, then sends in the team. Lying on what appears to be a large pile of concrete briquettes, Jack replays the highlights of his years as a hero, family man and all-around great guy.
Luckily, the memories line up in chronological order so the rest of us can follow. Scenes from the blazing warehouse punctuate the good times, and memories are sparked by some very literal transitions. (A flashback to his son's christening, for instance, is sparked by water dripping on Jack's forehead.) We see Jack joining the force, getting teased by his colleagues, putting out his first fire, meeting the girl of his dreams, getting married, every second underscored with mood-appropriate music. (Jack's first day on the job? Irish jig! Building on fire? Military march!)
This is not to say that "Ladder 49" has nothing to offer; the rescue scenes are suitably tense and harrowing, with convincing special effects, and the performances are uniformly strong. Phoenix is particularly fine as the salt-of-the-earth Jack. The actor has a smallish head, a thick neck and greenish eyes like lily pads, which suggest depth, serenity and a certain type of chunky solidity. His marred prettiness only adds to his appeal. Phoenix's Jack is shy, confident, simple, strong, reliable and impish. He's everything women, children and terrified businessmen on ledges love in a man. And it never even goes to his head.
As Mike, Travolta, as ever, is Travolting -- in a good way. He exudes an oily charm that's at once irresistible and disturbing. It's hard not to note that the amaranthine hotness of Jack's wife, Linda (Jacinda Barrett) -- the movie transpires over 10 years and two children with nary a wrinkle, pooch or gray hair -- would not be lost on the great, slab-like Mike. But you'll have to squelch those thoughts. Not only does Mike possess unassailable moral fiber, he's even brushed with messianic overtones. After a fight breaks out between Jack and Lenny (Robert Patrick), the resident company jerk, Mike barges in, overturns some furniture and bellows, "Not in my house!"
Barrett is convincing as the long-suffering, but supportive, hero's wife, although the model is strictly cinematic. She's willowy and tender and doesn't get too mad when Jack comes home drunk. No wonder Jack remains dewy-eyed throughout.
But between "Ladder 49's" often prosaic dialogue, its ploddingly episodic plot, and a symphonic score that works so hard to express emotion that you might as well give your synapses the night off, it's more likely you'll wind up suffering from compassion fatigue than be drawn in to the story.
Unless, of course, you're still dreaming of growing up to be a fireman.
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By the numbers
Movies about fires and the people who fight them don't always ignite box office. In hopes of changing that, makers of "Ladder 49," which opens today, went to great lengths to depict realistically the work of firefighters in a way few if any films have. A look at a handful of feature films that dealt with fires and/or those who fight them.
Film (year released) / Domestic gross (in millions)
"Towering Inferno" ('74) / $116.0
"Backdraft" ('91) / $77.9
"Frequency" ('00) / $45.0
"Collateral Damage" ('02) / $40.1
"Firestorm" ('98) / $8.2
Sources: Boxofficemojo.com; Times staff
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense fire and rescue situations, and for language
Times guidelines: Fire and rescue scenes could be scary for young children.
Jack Morrison...Joaquin Phoenix
Capt. Mike Kennedy...John Travolta
Linda Morrison...Jacinda Barrett
Lenny Richter...Robert Patrick
Tommy Drake...Morris Chestnut
Touchstone Pictures and Beacon Pictures present a Casey Silver production, released by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. Director Jay Russell. Written by Lewis Colick. Producer Casey Silver. Executive producers Armyan Bernstein, Marty P. Ewing. Director of photography James L. Carter. Editors Bud S. Smith, M. Scott Smith. Production designer Tony Burrough. Costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus. Visual effects supervisor Peter Donen. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
In general release.