In an age where there are no greater heroes than firefighters, Ladder 49 celebrates the career and the men behind the career with a semi-moving action-drama.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Jack Morrison, a firefighter who's been through it all. The movie starts off with Jack saving a man from a raging inferno, but Jack isn't so lucky. The floor gives way and he plummets downwards, finally coming to a stop far beyond the reach of his comrades. As he struggles to survive, he looks back on his life, at his first fire, at the day he met his wife, at the day he found out she was pregnant. But where there is happiness there is sorrow, and he also recalls the time his best friend died. John Travolta, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut and Jacinda Barrett also star.
Most people want to compare Ladder 49 to Backdraft, and while both movies deal with firefighters, the two films are completely different. Backdraft set the benchmark for fire movies, but it was also an action-mystery; while it did look at the lives of firefighters, the story revolved around an arsonist. Ladder 49 has plenty of action scenes, but at heart it is a drama; much more time is spent on developing the characters than the fires. The results are mixed. The characters are likable (albeit strangely flawless) and as time progresses we, the audience, do begin to feel for our lead character, but Ladder 49 seems to fall a bit short on the emotional scale. The movie does have its powerful moments, but the drama is your run-of-the-mill variety; there really isn't anything you haven't seen before. The ending is a bit of a surprise, but seemed like it was just used as an avenue for Travolta to deliver one last speech.
Ladder 49 is entertaining enough, but it does struggle in the third act. By this time, we're more anxious to watch the rescue attempt for Jack, but the movie continues to tell us more of his back story. The problem is the flashbacks are so cut-and-dry you know exactly what's going to happen at all times; for a movie like this, it's okay, but not preferable. Furthermore, the movie shows us so many fire sequences throughout the movie we become desensitized to them; after the fifth fire where the heroes do more courageous stuff, we've just about seen it all. Still, Ladder 49 continues to show more and more as if trying to constantly remind us just how amazing these firefighters are.
Ladder 49 is a drama, but when it comes to action, I just have to - yes, compare it to Backdraft. Basically, this movie pales in comparison. The fire sequences in Ladder 49 are good, but not nearly as impressive as in Backdraft. In that movie, the fire had a life of its own and the firefighters seemed to react accordingly; here, the fire is rather static and the firefighters just seem to spray water wherever they can. In Backdraft, I felt much more engrossed in the work of the firefighters, where Ladder 49 seems to look more at the end result.
As far as acting goes, there's nothing special here. I like Phoenix well enough, but he always seems to play the same quiet, mumbling type. I was expecting something different out of him here, but he was still the same, and I must say I wasn't very impressed. He holds his own, but just barely. As for Travolta, he's decent, but his character never gets to go the distance. Let's just say there'll be no Oscar nods for this movie.Ladder 49 exceeds by delivering an entertaining drama that has a fair amount of action. Unfortunately, if you expect anything more than that, you'll be disappointed.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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