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"Ladder 49"

Directed by Jay Russell.
Written by Lewis Colick.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jacinda Barrett, Morris Chestnut and John Travolta.
Release Year:  2004
Review Date:  10/3/04


The best firefighting movie since "Backdraft" is...well, the ONLY firefighting movie I have seen since "Backdraft", "Ladder 49", and I think I might even like "Ladder 49" a little more than that previous Ron Howard classic made back in 1991.

This time around, we get the damn-near-whole life story of Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), who we meet as a rookie at a Baltimore City firehouse under the watchful hand of Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta).  Morrison, a "pipeman" on Ladder 49 (operating the fire hose), is just one of the guys at the station house that helps put out fires all over the city, including his new best friend Dennis (Billy Burke), a member of the Engine 33 search-and-rescue group at his firehouse; the old sage and old-school crusty Lenny (Robert Patrick); and the fiery Tommy Drake (Morris Chestnut), among many others that we meet during Morrison's career under Kennedy.  Also, very early in the film Jack meets his future wife Linda (Jacinda Barrett), a jewelry store clerk that just loves the fact that Jack is always willing to lay his life on the line to save his fellow citymates.

Coming in I was thinking that "Ladder 49" was going to be a Matinee at best, but I'll admit that the script by Lewis Colick does a great job of mixing business with pleasure; we get a lot of just regular ol' fire calls matched with the continuing drama behind the Jack/Linda relationship, all while we get a present-day situation featuring Jack as he is stuck inside a burning warehouse, reflecting back on his life with the firehouse.  The guilty pleasures of watching how Kennedy and Co. will fight each fire keeps the film moving; when the film must stop to let us deal with Jack's growing troubles of mixing his professional life with his responsibilities as a father, the film is good enough to not bog down anything for too long.

Now, I say "bog down" because normally romantic angles in these kinds of films are only good during the courtship phase; when we have to move into dramatic elements, movies like "Ladder 49" normally crumble to the ground.  But I really thought the film was solid when it came to realistically playing out what life must be like for the wife of a person like Jack; a person that really might be killed any time he goes to "work", as it were.  Even the life of a police officer's partner does not seem to compare to the kind of stress that a firefighter's partner must face (or, the partner of anyone in the Middle East right now)...and, after Jack & Linda have two children, this escalates (again, in slow, realistic adjustments that don't make the thing go over the top too quickly) to the point where Jack must really decide if this firefighting thing is really for him.

And again, back to the firefighting--I loved the fact that most of the fires and situations here don't get to the level of Superman-like heroism every time these guys go to work; sure, we have one or two that are like "Whoa!", but mostly it is a little fire here in a small row house, or a call there from a two-story warehouse, or a contained fire in an apartment building.  The thrill for me with "Ladder 49" is in the seeing rats flooding down from a burning attic.  Love hearing fireman terminology.  Love seeing four or five scenes of just the bell going off and everyone scrambling to get to their stations on the truck.  The teamwork.  Seeing the looks in everyone's eyes as they head off to another fire, not knowing if this one might be the last one they get to fight.

Those scenes are mostly well done.  The places where the movie struggles is in some of the central performances; I thought Phoenix was good at playing the film's simpleton centerpiece, but if you like Phoenix (as I do), you want him to break out and give you something like a bit from "Gladiator"...until you realize that he has played a quiet guy in films like "Signs" or "The Village" in the recent past, and maybe he just does this kind of character very well and I just didn't realize it before.  I don't know if I can say that Phoenix is bad in "Ladder 49"...I just didn't like his performance as much as I thought I would.  Travolta plays his more background mentor-type character here pretty well, but in a couple of scenes--say, a tirade late in the film at the firehouse in the kitchen--he seems to reach into the over-the-top anger that worked in "The Punisher" but seems to be unintentionally funny here.

Save for maybe Patrick--does anyone look tougher in a goatee than Robert Patrick, people?--I thought the performances were the only mediocre thing about "Ladder 49", enough to bring it down a grade from Opening Weekend.  But, I thought this was an otherwise effective big-studio release:  it's a good-looking, thought-provoking film about the life of a man that goes to work every day to risk his life and the consequences of those actions on family and friends around him.  The fire-and-rescue sequences are well done and the pacing is excellent; Baltimore looks great as usual (even its warehouse and low-income districts look smooth on film), and there are a good number of laughs scattered into Colick's script.  It's not perfect, but almost nothing about it is really bad...making it a solid choice for the cool-but-getting-warmer movie slate available right now.  You even get some drama that should draw multiple ManTears from your audience.  Damn, I love a good ManTear.

Rating:  $9.50 Show


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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The "fine print":
All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09