Firefighters. They're fantastic. This film, sadly, is not.
It's been commented that in the wake of 9/11 it will be some time before a firefighter is cast as anything other than a hero in a movie. What this doesn't take into account is that it's rare that a firefighter is cast as anything other than a firefighter in a movie. What was the last film centred on fire that you remember? Last one I can think off from the top of my head is Backdraft , which isn't exactly recent. While I've nothing but respect and thanks for their work it's not the sort of profession that lends itself to movie adaptation. After all, their real enemy is fire and flames aren't too proficient at delivering snappy one-liners and diving around with two handguns, and only rarely tie defenceless women to train tracks while twirling a hearty moustache.
Because of this, there's only one story to be told and that's the life of the guys trying to douse the flames. Ladder 49 opens with firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) saving a chap from a particularly nasty fire before the structure collapses around him, dropping him through a couple of floors with all the attendant pain you'd expect that to bring. While his buddies try to figure out a rescue strategy, Jack's life flashes before his eyes. Goody. Non-linear narrative time. Not that I'm sick of that technique in any way, shape or form. No, sir. Uh-uhh.
After forty five minutes of Ladder 49, we have learned this; Jack Morrison is a fireman, and Jack Morrison is a nice bloke. Another forty five minutes later we have learned the sum total of two shiny new facts; Jack Morrison is married, and Jack Morrison has two kids. Ten minutes later you gather your coat as the credits begin. Clearly this isn't plot driven narrative, but as a character piece it's as tasty as a processed cheese slice. Let's run through what we are told of Jack in a little more detail, shall we?
Jack joins as a fresh faced rookie and has a few pranks played on him by the old guard. Jack meets a girl in a supermarket and they fall in love. They get married and in due course increment the world's population. After a few bad fires sees some of Jack's buddies get hurt, Jack's wife begins to worry that he's putting himself at too much risk. Any of this sounding familiar at all? Thought so.
The sad thing is that no matter how well made, well acted and slickly produced there's no need for anyone to actually watch Ladder 49. It's all been done before, although perhaps not with firefighters and perhaps not in a movie theatre. Perhaps America doesn't have an equivalent for ITV's old London's Burning series, but they may well have gleaned inspiration from it here. Not to bludgeon the point too much, but Ladder 49 does seem to be something of a repeat showing, even if we never saw the show in quite this form first time round.
Perhaps a sadder thing is that is is well acted, and it is well made. Joaquin Phoenix deserves far more respect than he ever seems to be given for some reason, and he's never less than affable here. The few times we're ever given insight into more than his general aura of niceness during a few discussions with his wife, he plays a blinder. Just a blinder that's kinda familiar.
Similarly Travolta's Captain Mike Kennedy, Morrison's boss. He's a supporting character, but gets a decent amount of screentime. He has a few emotional moments to deal with. He does this very well. In fact, seeing as he's not just repeating that wiseass anti-hero/villain (delete as appropriate) schtick he's been palming off since Pulp Fiction it makes Ladder 49 his most accomplished dramatic turn in some time. All that said, with such a familiar character genotype it's not going to connect with anyone apart from the most cinematically sheltered.
And boy, how does Ladder 49 try to connect. Calling the final reel a tearjerker doesn't seem quite accurate. It's more of a tear-wrenching your eyeballs out with a rusty crowbar, grabbing your tear ducts in some vice-like device, attaching them to a highly powered rocket and firing it to the moon. Which is an unwieldy title, unlikely to fit on a section header at Blockbuster but nonetheless more accurate. Such unashamed schmaltz and sentiment are rarely seen of celluloid these days, and it's played up to such an extent that we'd call it 'laying it a bit thick' were this the true story of someone's heroism. That it's entirely Hollywood generated frankly makes me feel a little dirty. I keep picturing some Executive type watching this thinking, 'those saps out there will cry their eyes out, we'll make millions!' after an initial screening and it makes me a little angry.
I suppose the point is that Jack's life will mirror a fairly sizeable number of firefighters both now and throughout history, which is fair enough and perhaps where it's generic story can be excused to an extent. "Look", Ladder 49 screams. "Aren't firefighters brave!". Yes. Yes they are. However this sliver of knowledge I already possess, and whether or not being charged a fiver to have this knowledge repacked and retold to me is a sensible proposition is a value call a prospective viewer may wish to consider before handing over their own hard earned moolah.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.
John Travolta (Captain Mike Kennedy)
Jacinda Barrett (Linda Morrison)
Robert Patrick (Lenny Richter)
Morris Chestnut (Tommy Drake)
Balthazar Getty (Ray Gauquin)
Brooke Hamlin (Katie Morrison)