Directed by Jay Russell. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Balthazar Getty. (2004, PG-13, 115 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 8, 2004
As a heartwarming tribute to the courage of firefighters, Ladder 49 delivers. The film has fiery action, romance, male camaraderie, and a secure place in the American zeitgeist, which has grown more overtly appreciative of the work of first responders since 9/11. Nothing wrong with any of that. But the film’s bare-bones story suggests that it never aspired to anything beyond its mercenary interests: Tap into the zeitgeist and run. Most of the story is told in flashback: A firefighter (Phoenix) sees his life pass before his eyes while trapped within the bowels of an impenetrable fire. He remembers his first day at the firehouse, coincidentally the same day he meets his future wife (Barrett, who makes a strong impression here). Years pass, kids come into the picture, buddies are lost to merciless fires, the family learns to be stoic – the usual stuff. Lewis Colick’s screenplay never strays from the obvious, and Russell directs as though more thought was given to the flames than the characters. Travolta gives a winning performance as the fire station’s captain, but again, the role requires little of him that we haven’t seen him deliver many times before. Phoenix is engaging as the film’s central character, even though his greatest acting challenge was probably figuring out how to move while burdened with all that fireman's gear. Watching Ladder 49 is a basically cathartic experience, as long as the viewer is'nt spending time eyeballing the rest of the crowd trying to figure out who the pyromaniacs in the audience are.