It’s hard to make a bad firefighter movie. Unlike most action films, you don’t have to worry about a compelling and well written villain, the fire is right there. It’s unpredictable, terrifying, devastating, and in a dark, evil way incredibly beautiful. As long as the set builders use enough lighter fluid, you can’t possibly mess that up. So it’s really no surprise that the fire scenes are what’s best about Ladder 49, watching them is a kind of natural poetry. Director Jay Russell does a great job of capturing all the right colors and reflections with enough visual creativity that the danger feels real and compelling even if the stories and characters around it aren’t especially noteworthy.
Ladder 49 introduces us to Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) in the midst of a spectacular 20 story blaze, which both inside and out is one of the most stunning fire scenes I’ve ever seen. Morrison braves the fire to pull off a stunning and dangerous rescue sequence, while the entire building burns and collapses around him. Flames leap and flow out of every orifice, the heat seems to churn its way right out of the screen and into the audience. After the rescue, the floor literally falls out from under Jack. Out of control, he plummets through the building into the middle of an inferno. Unconscious and awaiting rescue, things get rolling as Jack relives his life in the middle of a four alarm fire.
Ladder 49 has a lot to cover as the film begins following Jack in his first day at the job on through his entire career in what is basically an entire movie composed of flashbacks. In between fires, landmark events happens with an almost careless amount of attention paid by Lewis Colick’s script, including marriage, kids, friends, and all the stuff a good suburban, 2.5 kids, white picket fence American ought to be doing with his life. But the real focus is on the fires, with Jack battling a variety of blazes and facing different dangers each time. His first day on the hose finds him more afraid of stepping on escaping rats than terrified by the raging flames he has to defeat.
Jack himself is decently written, but not fully fleshed out. Still, Joaquin does an admirable job as an earnest and occasionally conflicted man in love with helping others. Sometimes the way his doubts about his job are addressed is a little strange. I still haven’t figured out why his wife is opposed to him doing what’s right for her and the kids after only moments earlier confessing that she’s scared to death he’ll end up dead. What is weirder still is that Joaquin has obviously put on a lot of weight recently and Ladder 49 seems to be more than a little embarrassed over it. While the fact that he looks a lot like me from the back when wearing only boxers probably won’t do much to sell Joaquin Phoenix calendars, it has little bearing on the role, and so we could have done without the awkwardness of Russell constantly trying to hide Joaquin’s well developed stomach.
Awkwardness seems to be the order of the day with all of Ladder 49’s characters. John Travolta for instance, struts around like he’s playing a more sensitive version of Vincent Vega. Aside from Phoenix, Travolta’s cigar chewing fire chief Mike is the only other person whose name you’re likely to remember. Jack’s other companions are in a lot of shots, but generally spend their screen time standing around behind him in the background. Those who show any evidence of personality only end up dead, leaving us with a cadre of Jack’s close friends who rarely talk except as part of some over scripted, cliché bit. Robert Patrick, Jay Hernandez, Morris Chestnut, Kevin Daniels, they all blend together in front of the camera, differentiated only by their various injuries. Ladder 49 works hard to sell a sense of firehouse camaraderie, but forgets to let us get to know the comrades that go along with it.
This is a well meaning movie though, and certainly not a bad one. Ladder 49 is in its own way a reflection of the idealized firefighter we’ve all built up in our minds post-9/11. Its world is one of celebrations, laughter, love, and funerals punctuated by big blazing burns. Personally, I would have preferred something a little more realistic to link together their on the job struggles than a flimsy series of birthday parties and rookie razzing, however I guess you can’t really go overboard in glorifying firefighters and the business of saving lives. Ladder 49 whips past moments of potential depth to push on through it’s extended life of a firefighter tale, but Jay Russell has a real eye for freshly sparked urban tinder and his bonfires do a capable job of driving this flick.