A film review by Craig J. Koban

LADDER 49 jjj
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2004, PG-13, 120 mins.

Jack Morrison: Joaquin Phoenix / Chief Mike Kennedy:John Travolta / Linda Morrison: Jacinda Barrett / Tommy Drake: Morris Chestnut / Don Miller: Kevin Daniels / Lenny Richter: Robert Patrick / Dennis Gauquin: Billy Burke / Ray Gauquin: Balthazar Getty

Directed by Jay Russell / Written by Lewis Colick

Ladder 49 Double-sided posterI think that, behind police officers, firefighting is unquestionably the least appreciated profession.  Sure, as a kid, many of us might have thought it would have most certainly been rather adventurous and cool to be a fireman battling towering infernos.  However, as we get older and our somewhat mature and astute hindsight kicks in, we probably begin to realize that firefighting may (a) be kind of dangerous and (b) that being a firefighter ranges vaguely between either being very courageous or very crazy.  Nevertheless, the role of these professionals obviously has a fairly cherished spot in the minds of most civilians (I mean, really, in our world void of spandex clad super heroes, they are our closest approximation). 

Itís kind of amazing that more films have not paid attention to this enormously significant profession.  Ron Howardís visually opulent BACKDRAFT viscerally put us in the heart of the dangers of firefighting, plunging us head-on into the deadly job of battling with the elements.  Yet, that film served more as a standard action picture that lacked real heart in investing emotionally with its characters, who were too busy being occupied with one of those all-too-familiar dramatic melodramas.  The real surprise of Jay Russellís new film - LADDER 49 -  is that it carefully letís the action scenes take a backseat to the characters.  Thatís a bold and daring move, considering my expectations of this film.  The film is less interested in wowing us with gritty action scenes and more interested in the men behind the fires.  That, in itself, is intrinsically more appealing then watching endless scenes of fires. 

The film stars Joaquin Phoenix (always dependable and under-appreciated in his time) as Jack Morrison, a young fireman that is primarily assigned to search and rescue helpless victims.  John Travolta, in the smaller supporting role, plays Jackís mentor and chief, Kennedy.  In an interesting narrative move, LADDER 49 begins by introducing us to these characters in a large action set piece and then later introduces us to them and reveals their past history.

As the film opens Jack, a member of the Baltimore City Fire Departmentís Engine 33, enters a warehouse that is engulfed in flames.  People are stranded on the highest levels of the building, which looks poised to explode at any given moment.  Jack and his team, while entering the deadly fire and searching the building, discover a lone survivor on the twelve floor (which, as the film wisely shows us, is way to high to be reached by any ladder).  Jack, being a man blind is his courage, helps the man by gently lowering him down to a safer floor with a utility rope.  Unfortunately for our hero, the building gets rocked by explosions and falls through the floor and lands several floors below in a heap of rubble.  When he finally comes to he radios to Kennedy,  who in turn tries to quickly organize a rescue of Jack before it's too late.  There is only a very small amount of time, it seems, to get Jack out of the building before it completely gets engulfed by the flames that is quickly destroying it.   

Interestingly, the film does not follow through on a linear plot, but instead immediately flashes back to Jackís very first day in the department as a young and naÔve rookie.  This ostensibly establishes the formula for the rest of the film, as it intercuts back and forth between the present danger of Jack being trapped in the burning building and his life as a firefighter leading up to that point.  It is, at first, a bit jarring and seemingly disorganized way to tell the story, but as the film progresses we get more comfortable with the filmís overall structure and easily begin to settle in with the story of Jackís life.  Yes, there are sensational scenes of fires that are largely convincing (none of which are as a visually arresting as the ones in BACKDRAFT).  However, this picture is not an action film and, it could be legitimately argued, is not really about fighting fires at all.  Itís really a inquisitive, sensitive, and surprisingly introspective and touching story of one manís life and the choices he makes along the way that dictates his decisions to be a firefighter.  The film is so sincere with its flashbacks that it almost takes on a loose, documentary flavour. 

There is nothing altogether fresh and original about the film in terms of its story.  Much of it seems like standard material for this type of picture.  We see Jack (through intercutted flashbacks) visit the fire hall on his first day and meet the ragtag group of fellow firemen, who place a humorous practical joke on him his first day (which, later pays off in a wonderfully funny moment, when they try to pull the same joke on a new rookie years later).  After the initial awkwardness of his new surroundings, Jack more or less finds his grove and actually becomes very adept at his job and establishes a great bond with his colleagues.  They work together, talk together, drink together, and go to the grocery store and try to pick up women together.  One of the women that Jack meets at the super market is Linda (Jacinda Barrett) who, of course, very quickly becomes his wife and later has children with him.  Linda, as many stock wives in these types of films do, worries incessantly about her husband and his dangerous work, and dreads the day where the chief will pull up to her house in his red chiefís car to tell her the terrible news of his death (the direct comparison to Generalís coming to soldierís wivesí homes after combat seems kind of analogous). 

The film feels strongly routine by its plot, but it felt fresh and strong throughout.  There is nothing relatively new to the story, but it felt unique in terms of its tone and the way Russell handles the material and characters in terms of its tone.  This is not a glorified look at firefighting, nor is it one of those dumb-downed procedurals where the firefighters are on the hunt for a crazy, whacked out pyromaniac who must be stopped before he gets churns out his next mission.  Rather, LADDER 49 takes great prides and strides at humanizing its story and making us invest in its characters.  Their lives donít seem all that revealing, and many of the things that occur in the film we have seen a thousand times before, but the film has a leisurely and effortless approach at simply showing us these men, who they are, and what they tirelessly do.  There are no grand scenes of revelations, no gigantic set pieces set off with a ridiculously hyped up soundtrack with booming music.  The film is so refreshingly sparse and minimalist, even its characters say two words where lesser films would have their characters rant on endlessly.  There is a great moment when Jack and Linda, on their first date, talk about his job.  Jack seems kind of surprised by how much investment Linda has in the type of work he does.  After she continually asks him how he does his job day after day, he just modestly shrugs and responds, ďItís a job.Ē 

Many of the characters come across very convincingly, despite being trapped in a rather conventional story.  Joaquin Phoenix is the real winner of the film, and he gives his character so much emotional weight and vulnerability.  The film really rests on his shoulders and heís equal to the task.  He has really emerged as one of Hollywoodís finest young actors and has always turned out great work in even moderately successful films (this year's THE VILLAGE may not have worked, but he was a successful piece of it).  If anything, Phoenix is fantastic at playing quiet, shy, inhibited men who, when action is necessary, is capable of doing great things.  Itís sort of amazing Ė heís completely timid and reserved when he has his first date with Linda, but when it comes to swinging down a ten story building on a rope to save a man from a burning building, he brings a forcefulness and strength to the character.  Phoenixís fireman in LADDER 49 feels more real and grounded then any of the men from BACKDRAFT. 

The rest of the supporting cast does an equally fine job with their characters.  Thereís Robert Patrick in another good small supporting role, and Jacinda Barrett is quiet appealing as her role of the troubled Linda.  She is not simply one of those embittered and emotionally unstable firemenís wives whose only purpose in the film is to worry and complain.  Yes, she does that, but she also has moments of reflection and tenderness with her husband that other films would not have patience for.  Their marriage feels more real than it does feels like a Hollywood contrivance. 

Out of all the cast, the small role of Travoltaís seems the trickiest,  if not the most complicated.  He is essentially playing that standard stock chief/authority figure character that has been played countless times, but here Travolta does something special Ė he does not just play the man as a rough figurehead, but more of a glorified father figure who actually cares about his men.  The screenplay spares us of endless scenes of Kennedy yelling at his men for their mistakes and ineptitude.  Rather, he kind of plays the role with humility and softness and celebrates the menís victories as well as their failures.  Heís not one of those characters who force his men to take things on that they are not capable of.  In one terrifically realized moment, he offers Jack an easier desk job that may take him away from the danger of his current assignment.  Jack refuses and decides to stay in his current position.  Why?  Well, not because he thinks it's safe or because of any moral and civic responsibility.  He stays because thatís what he does and his has a level of determination, pride, and sense of camaraderie with his job.  He does it because he wants to, not because he has to. 

I think thatís what makes LADDER 49 really stand out and shine.  Itís a film about firefighters without very much time spent on the actual firefighting itself.  Much like an early release of 2004, the wonderful hockey film MIRACLE, LADDER 49 feels more confident and comfortable telling the story of the men behind the scenes and seems less interested in spectacle.  Itís not a picture of glorified action set pieces.  This film solidifies itself in the emphasis it places on the undying bravery and will of its characters and how they are compelled, time and time again, to make decisions that could very well cost them their lives.  The film is not so much exciting and fast-paced as it was tender, sweet, sad, sensitive, and patient with telling its human story.  Itís about the men who do this job, what makes them tick, and how they got to where they are.  If LADDER 49 were a superhero film, it would reveal itself as being more interested in the Clark Kentís of its world and less involved in the ďsupermenĒ that occupy it.  Itís one of the nicer surprises of the fall so far, one in which the men are the focus are not the raging fires themselves.

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