- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2004

“Ladder 49” is the flip side of FX’s bawdy “Rescue Me.” That TV drama captures the darker side of the modern firefighter — the nonstop carping between colleagues, the barely concealed homophobia and the destructive lives some firefighters lead.

“Ladder 49” opts for hero worship, not inappropriately, given the subject matter.

But even heroes are human. Unfortunately, director Jay Russell (2000’s “My Dog Skip”) omits from his heroic tableux those telling details of individual speech and behavior that make characters recognizably human.

Instead, his firefighters are life-size action figures. It’s too bad. Deeper identification with these characters would only have deepened our appreciation of what’s at stake in their dangerous work.

The film opens with veteran firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) falling three stories after rescuing someone trapped in a Baltimore warehouse blaze.

The story then flashes back to Jack’s first days on the job, a time filled with rookie hazing and career uncertainty.

We watch Jack mature with the help of the company’s stalwart chief (John Travolta) and his new girlfriend, Linda (Jacinda Barrett), the future Mrs. Morrison.

The narrative keeps careening back and forth, from Jack’s professional growing pains to his current plight.

We learn that Linda came to question Jack’s commitment to his family early in his career. When he declines an offer for a less risky position within the department, she challenges his need to put his life on the line. Her concern grows when Jack’s colleague Tommy (Morris Chestnut) suffers serious burns on the job.

The story jumps disorient at times — hey, since when do Jack and Linda have two kids? — but the device clicks more often than not.

Mr. Phoenix’s first unabashedly heroic role may not be the savviest career gambit. It’s never in doubt the young actor can convey the firefighter’s nobility, but his atypical bearing seems wasted.

Mr. Travolta, following a muted turn as “The Punisher’s” villain, seems almost detached here. The patriarchal fire chief should be tailor-made for Mr. Travolta, who’s thickened with time but retains that avuncular glint in his blue eyes.

Mr. Russell treats small moments like glossy stills from the Hollywood dream factory. When the firefighters gather at the local pub, it becomes a communal event: One character makes a joke, and the entire bar joins in the comradely mirth. Similarly, a humble family barbecue is idealized into a Kodak moment.

What Mr. Russell does capture flawlessly is the claustrophobic nature of fighting fires. He maneuvers his actors through some expertly choreographed blazes, conveying a visceral sense of the danger involved in even a rudimentary call.

The men and women who risk their lives to keep us safe deserve a film homage. Ron Howard’s uneven “Backdraft” (1991), Hollywood’s last full-scale attempt at dramatizing their work, didn’t quite get the job done even by pre-September 11 standards.

“Ladder 49” gets its firefighting heroics right. It’s everything else that never quite convinces. The door is open for another try.

***

TITLE: “Ladder 49”

RATING: PG-13 (Violent sequences, mature themes and coarse language)

CREDITS: Directed by Jay Russell. Screenplay by Lewis Colick. Cinematography by James L. Carter

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

WEB SITE: https://ladder49.movies.

go.com/main.html

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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