Ladder 49 Movie Review
The third line of dialogue in "Ladder 49" is the all too familiar refrain "I'm gettin' too old for this s***!" -- an indicator that freshness and originality weren't the highest priority for this firefighter drama built around a post-9/11 brand of sacrificial All-American heroism.
But the formidable opening image of a towering warehouse embraced in the beautiful, horrible tentacles of a furious fire goes a long way toward gluing you to your seat anyway -- especially once fireman Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) is trapped inside by a floor collapse only seconds after saving a civilian's life.
As the injured Jack awaits what may be an impossible rescue, the film revisits in flashbacks his 10 years as a firefighter, husband and father, beginning with his practical-joke-filled first days at his Baltimore firehouse and at his first fire, where for the sake of character arc and moviegoer accessibility he's made to seem a little too inexperienced to be credible.
But writer Lewis Colick ("October Sky") and director Jay Russell ("Tuck Everlasting," "My Dog Skip") structure the film perfectly, picking exactly the right moments to cut between Jack's perilous present, in which his hope begins to ebb as the flames loom larger, and his sometimes too ordinary past, seasoned with the occasional heroic rescue or faith-shaking death of a comrade.
The leading players of "Ladder 49" -- including subtle Jacinda Barrett ("The Human Stain") as the girl who shy Jack awkwardly romances into spending her life with him, and John Travolta as the chief who becomes Jack's close friend (and desperately orchestrates his rescue in the present) -- help keep the movie grounded in heartfelt courage, loyalty and blue collar veracity. So if you can get caught up in its well-composed drama, in the immediacy of its nerve-racking emergency calls, and in Phoenix's stout, modest portrayal of Jack's maturing valor, "Ladder 49" may be an affecting -- if not particularly memorable -- movie experience.
Unfortunately, there's also sufficient Hollywoodization and creative license to distract the less forgiving mind (my firefighter brother-in-law would likely roll his eyes several times) -- and the film is delivered two significant blows by its intrusive, "Titanic"-like score and by one ill-conceived, blatantly tear-jerking montage sequence (accompanied by a mawkish song about "shining your light") shoehorned into the film at the worst possible moment.
By excessively pandering to audiences seeking poignant, selfless heroism at a time of great national distress, "Ladder 49" may succeed at the box office. But it will have a brief shelf life.