LADDER 49, as directed by MY DOG SKIP's Jay Russell, is a movie in a war
with itself. About a quarter of the time LADDER 49 wants to be a high
energy action picture with intense and realistic firefighting sequences that
have earned the movie the informal nickname of BACKDRAFT II, which it isn't.
These harrowing episodes of firemen risking their lives day in and day out
in burning and collapsing buildings in order to save strangers are all
effectively touching and believable.
The majority of the story, however, is set in the firehouse, in firemen's
houses and in the bar where they all go to get drunk together. In these
settings, the movie piles on the schmaltz and the lame attempts at humor so
that we'll see the film as a comedy with a big heart, a really big heart.
These sequences, which feel both labored and long, are hard to get excited
about since the story never creates characters who are more than
The story is structured as a series of flashbacks, as trapped fireman Jack
Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) watches his life flash before his eyes as
building walls fall and burn all around him. Outside, his old captain and
now Chief Kennedy (John Travolta) directs a large rescue effort to save him
from what looks like will be certain death.
Although most of the plot concerns the life of a fireman, we learn little we
couldn't have guessed, save the predilection of fireman to play a recurring
series of really silly practical jokes on each other like a bunch of frat
boys who never grew up. The first gag, shown in the trailers, has the
rookie Jack being tricked into confessing his sins to Lenny Richter (Robert
Patrick), a fellow fireman who is impersonating a priest. These incidents
aren't especially funny or consequential. In fact, whenever the fires
aren't burning, the movie appears to just be marking time until it can light
something up again.
Our heroic firemen deserve a better movie than LADDER 49, which tries
earnestly but fails nonetheless.
LADDER 49 runs 1:55. It is rated PG-13 for "intense fire and rescue
situations, and for language" and would be acceptable for kids around 10 and
Copyright © 2004 Steve Rhodes