Directed by Jay Russell.
Written by Lewis Colick.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Jacinda Barrett, Morris Chestnut and
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 details...love 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
you realize that he has played a quiet guy in films like
"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: $9.50 Show
Comments? Drop me a line at
Bellview Rating System:
"Opening Weekend": This is
the highest rating a movie can receive. Reserved for movies that
exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development,
setting...or Salma Hayek. Not necessarily in that order.
"$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
"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 bad...man, 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
"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