While Sept. 11 helped embellish the already heroic image of firefighters, "Ladder 49" doesn't owe any direct debt to such recent events. It plays, rather, like an old-fashioned, by-the-numbers drama that solidly connects with most of its well-worn cliches. Good word of mouth should ignite the kind of B.O. that will warm hearts at the studio.

While Sept. 11 helped embellish the already heroic image of firefighters, “Ladder 49″ doesn’t owe any direct debt to such recent events. It plays, rather, like an old-fashioned, by-the-numbers drama that solidly connects with most of its well-worn cliches. The only problem is that Disney is selling more sizzle than is generated by the movie itself, which feels less like “The Towering Inferno” or “Backdraft” than “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Even so, good word of mouth should ignite the kind of B.O. that will warm hearts at the studio.

It takes awhile to absorb the pic’s structure, which features intrepid firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) entering a perilous 20-story blaze, then recounts his career in flashback, oscillating between the past and his current predicament.

In other words, welcome to “Jack Morrison: This Is Your Life,” beginning with the day he walks into the fire station as a raw rookie. Taken under the wing of the unit’s gruff but caring captain (John Travolta), he meets and woos a pretty girl (Jacinda Barrett) and bonds with his buddies, who drink and play hard when they aren’t racing into burning buildings.

The surprise is that the fire sequences, for the most part, won’t light many, with the exception of one harrowing scene as Jack rappels down the side of a high-rise to rescue a man on a ledge.

As earnestly constructed by director Jay Russell (“My Dog Skip”) and writer Lewis Colick (“October Sky”), “Ladder 49″ actually ascends the highest in smaller moments, as the firefighters haze new arrivals, engage in outlandish pranks and, when necessary, mourn each other’s losses and setbacks.

This is, in other words, a pretty squeaky-clean version of life, especially compared to something like the new FX series “Rescue Me.” “Ladder 49″ stresses the ideal of firefighters’ selfless heroism, with only the smallest hint of the excess that, in that TV depiction and others, can almost reflexively fill their personal lives.

Still, Phoenix brings strong conviction to the central role, portraying a simple guy who wants little more out of life than to love his family and extricate people from smoke-filled rooms. He also receives noble support from Travolta (earning a measure of redemption after this year’s camp trip in “The Punisher”), Barrett, Robert Patrick and Morris Chestnut.

What’s most interesting, at the risk of promoting gender stereotypes, is that Disney’s marketing approach appears to be pitching the film harder to action-conscious guys than their wives and girlfriends, who are apt to find the narrative more compelling. In that respect, chalk this up as the equivalent of someone yelling “Fire!” hoping to get people to run into a crowded theater.

Ladder 49

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures and Beacon Pictures presentation of a Casey Silver production. Produced by Silver. Executive producers, Armyan Bernstein, Marty Ewing. Co-producer, Chris Salvaterra. Directed by Jay Russell. Screenplay, Lewis Colick.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), James L. Carter; editors, Bud Smith, Scott Smith; music, William Ross; music supervisor, John Bissell; production designer, Tony Burrough; art directors, Kevin Constant, Gregory Wm. Bolton; set decorator, Maggie Martin; costume designer, Renee Ehrlich Kalfus; sound (SDDS Dolby Digital DTS), Kirk Francis; supervising sound editor, Kelly Cabral; visual effects supervisor, Peter Donen; associate producers, Manny Chavez, Anson Downes, Linda Favila; assistant director, Vincent Lascoumes; second unit director, Jim Arnett; stunt coordinator, G.A. Aguilar; casting, Nancy Foy. Reviewed at the Avco Cinema, Los Angeles, Sept. 27, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 114 MIN.

With

Jack Morrison - Joaquin Phoenix Captain Mike Kennedy - John Travolta Linda Morrison - Jacinda Barrett Lenny Richter - Robert Patrick Tommy Drake - Morris Chestnut Dennis Gauquin - Billy Burke Ray Gauquin - Balthazar Getty Tony Corrigan - Tim Guinee

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