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Ladder 49  (2004)


Rating: PG-13

Distributor: Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Release Date: March 9, 2005
Review posted: March 8, 2005


Reviewed by Greg Malmborg




Ladder 49 is a tribute to firefighters in the post 9/11 world, it emphasizes the heroism and dedication to the job it takes to be a firefighter in a big city and how difficult life can be for both the men on the job and their families. 


The film focuses on Baltimore firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), who after dramatically saving a man’s life in a high-rise blaze, falls into the burning rubble knocking him unconscious.  From this point on, the film flows back and forth from Jack’s struggle to survive in the rubble and find a way out to flashbacks telling Jack’s story from his first day on the job up until this fateful day. 


The story focuses on Jack’s bonding with his fellow firefighters, his father-son like relationship with his Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), the difficulties his family faces in worrying about him, and (of course) his actual firefights.  Jack spends the majority of his time with the guys either in the firehouse playing practical jokes on one another or at the local pub getting drunk and mulling over the day’s excitement.  During the course of the film, Jack falls in love, marries, and has kids with a girl (Jacinda Barrett) he first meets in the supermarket with a fellow firefighter.  Their relationship is always taking a back seat to his firefighting ambitions and they have a difficult time dealing with the reality that he might not make it home some day.  The film takes us through Jack’s first fire all the way through some very bad on the job experiences where friends and co-workers have perished or have been severely hurt fighting fires.  When the film fast-forwards back to present-day (intermediately), Jack’s crew is struggling to find him in the burning wreckage as time is running out.  Mike gets on the scene and talks with Jack over the radio trying to find him a way out or the other guys a way in, but he may be too late.




Ladder 49 is respectful to the dangerous job of being a firefighter and it emphasizes their heroism.  Problem is, it is so respectful that it is unwilling to make these characters have any flaws whatsoever, which makes them completely unrealistic, and it pigeon holes them as heroes without giving them any depth or true character.  It also makes the film horribly dull as there really is no central conflict or interesting plot developments, it just drives the point home over and over again that firefighting is dangerous and these guys are heroic.  The film is also agonizingly slow with so many similar scenes driving home that same point.  


The acting isn’t quite bad in the film, but the characters they inhabit are so unrealistic and the dialogue they work with is so atrocious that it seems wooden and lifeless.  Joaquin Phoenix has most of the screen time and he just has nothing to work with.  He is usually such a lively, naturalistic type of actor who always brings some originality and edge to the roles he plays.  Unfortunately, he is just lifeless here, but again I blame the horrendous dialogue and dull storyline.  John Travolta seems almost non-existent here, he’s not bad in the film, it’s just that the character is a complete snore.  The supporting cast is mostly all of the guys in the fire department who just go around laughing pulling intensely lame practical jokes on one another (I mean these are adults pulling middle school pranks), so no one stands out.  The only person who comes across well in this is Jacinda Barrett (from The Real World TV show) as Phoenix’s wife who has some terrific earlier scenes with Phoenix (when he is courting her).


The direction is simply awful by Jay Russell.  From the use of special effects (the rats in the hallway scene was hilariously bad) to the way he frames the scene (I felt like I was looking at a movie set for most of the film) to the way he makes even great actors seemingly disappear from the film (a film with Phoenix and Travolta shouldn’t be this bad), Russell completely fails with this film.  His use of cheesy pop songs to underline his overbearing theme is just sickening, there is one grating song that plays almost its entirety over the last scenes of the film that makes the ending almost unbearable (and in the extras we get the music video!). 


This is a lifeless, 2-dimensional and ridiculously safe film with no excitement and really no plot.  The screenwriter Lewis Colick has essentially written an almost plot-less film.  The only conflict in the story is that Phoenix has a few scenes where he feels he might want to consider quitting because it’s too dangerous, but that is quickly put to bed and instead we get anti-climatic firefights, nonstop funeral scenes, lame practical jokes, and some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard.  And the way the story plays out with the present day interrupted with flashbacks is a horrible idea, the only tension in the film is constantly interrupted to the point were it becomes unbearably annoying.


If I haven’t made it clear enough, let me just say this is a very bad film (and a very manipulative one) masquerading as an important film. 




The transfer is very clear and crisp; the colors are vibrant and lucid.  It is a strong, quality video transfer.




The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and it is outstandingly clear and crisp; the balances are perfect, the dialogue sounds great and the firefights have great surround sound activity. 




Commentary with director Jay Russell and editor Bud Smith – This is a strange commentary, there are unusually long periods of silence and then all of a sudden their voices will chime in incredibly loud and harsh (I thought it might have been my sound system but it wasn’t).  It makes it hard to watch.  When they are talking they do give some interesting insight into the making of, especially with making the fire scenes look authentic.  They also talk about how the film was conceptualized and written before 9/11 and then “adjusted” just a bit as not to offend.  I’m assuming that it was “adjusted” quite a bit.


The Making of Ladder 49 – This is actually a nice extra, brief (about 20 minutes) and tight.  It includes three distinct pieces.  The director and other crewmembers discuss shooting in Baltimore and how underused the city is in film.  The next section goes into the training that the actors had.  Travolta had too seek medical attention for burning his hands.  And Phoenix conquered his fear of heights during production and did most of his own stunts.  The last piece goes into detail on the Warehouse fire scene, discussing all the various details that went into shooting the scene. 


Everyday Heroes – This is a short but emotionally poignant tribute to firefighters that is a better feature than the entirety of the film.  This includes real interviews and discussions with Baltimore firemen and it goes into the life of one particular firefighter interviewing his wife and daughters. Very touching tribute to these everyday heroes.


Deleted Scenes – These are the obligatory deleted scenes, problem is there should have been a bunch more.  The film needed an extra 30 minutes cut.  Most of these deleted scenes are very inconsequential except for one where Phoenix comes home to see that the World Trade Center was attacked which has some needed poignancy. 


Music Video for Robbie Robertson’s “Shine Your Light” – I think I made my thoughts clear about what I thought of this awful song.




Firefighters have intensely dangerous jobs and they are real life heroes who deserve a film that not only honors them, but also truly captures what their lives are like.  Ladder 49 is not that film.




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