Wednesday, March 23, 2005

MOVIES: Ladder 49 review

We meet Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) on the worst day of his life.
A firefighter in Baltimore, he responds with his crew to a huge warehouse blaze, with people trapped inside. In the course of rescue work, Jack gets separated from his team and is unable to get out of the burning building. “Ladder 49” starts with this harrowing sequence — and then backs up to tell us how this man got here.
Over the next two hours, we go back and forth between Jack’s terrifying ordeal and learning who he is — looking at his 10-year career as a firefighter, from a wide-eyed rookie to a married father with children, an experienced old hand who’s seen the best and worst of the job.
“Ladder 49” nicely combines pulse-pounding fiery action with characters you care about, good performances and a solid feel for drama and comedy. It’s got heart.
And it’s far better than the overwrought 1990s movie “Backdraft,” which tossed in insane arsonists, fire investigators and family bickering. “Ladder 49,” for the most part, sticks to chronicling the life and times of one firefighter, the highs and the lows. You really get a feel for a fireman’s job.
It’s anchored by a very sturdy performance by Phoenix, one of my favorite young actors. Phoenix is one of those actors who at first glance doesn’t appear to be doing a lot with the role, but who grabs you with his subtle presence. As his boss and mentor, John Travolta chews the scenery as usual, but he reins it in a little to create an appealing supporting role.
Director Jay Russell has crafted what I’d almost call a “feel-good movie” about death-defying work. He’s clearly out to pay tribute to the men and women who do the job (although there’s no women firefighters seen here). He stages action excellently, and really makes us see the camaraderie between Jack and his blood-brother co-workers.
As “Ladder 49” progresses, though, it gets darker, as the real toll of fighting fires becomes apparent. It takes some unexpected detours, and digs deeper than the typical action blockbuster.
I’m uncertain about the movie’s ending, which tips the movie’s balance a bit too much toward melodrama and canonizing firefighters. Firefighters are heroic, without a doubt, but they’re also complicated human beings. Making them into flawless icons drains any chance for dramatic development in a movie. “Ladder 49” comes close to that pitfall.
But most of the time, “Ladder 49” walks that line competently. Even if it stumbles a little in the end, it’s still a compelling look at how firefighters are made, and why they do what they do.
*** of four

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