"Ladder 49" follows Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), an ordinary Baltimore fireman, from his days as eager rookie, through his first fire, to meeting and marrying the girl of his dreams, to winning awards for bravery and losing his first team member to a rogue blaze. The events of Jack's life are played out as flashbacks as he and his fellow fire-fighters battle the biggest fire of their careers in an enormous abandoned warehouse.
For all its good intentions "Ladder 49" is a tragic waste of a good cast and a solid idea on a clumsy script and an even clumsier direction. Its main problem is an inability to decide what it is trying to do.
The film could have been a raw, honest exploration of what it's really like to be a fire-fighter (like "The Guys") or it could have been a gung-ho heroic action film (like "Backdraft"). Instead it falls squarely between the two, its many good elements lost beneath layers of flabby filmmaking.
An example: on the one hand the film doesn't reduce the firemen to superheroes - they show their fear, doubt and pain. On the other hand it dresses up the action with lavish special effects, music and cinematography to squeeze the maximum out of the money scenes. You can't capitalise on the raw and realistic angle while at the same time playing to the crowds - the result just rings hollow.
The tired script also leaves much to be desired. Apart from the paint-by-numbers plotting (fireman meets girl, fireman marries girl, girl gets worried about fireman's job) the dialogue is often excruciatingly stilted, if not utterly cliched. The talented cast grimace manfully through the many howlers ("What I am gonna tell the kids? I was their hero!"), but most of the time they just look bored.
There are highlights, however. The always excellent Joaquin Phoenix invests his lead role with a lot more complexity than the script should have allowed, turning a loveable card-board cut-out oaf into a three dimensional human being. The boyish camaraderie of firehouse pranks is also refreshing, as is the obvious effort the director and his art directors made to maintain authenticity, both visual and verbal. When the actors reel off jargon like "truckies" (AKA the search and rescue team) or "charging the line" (that's filling the hose with water to you or me), you can't help but feel that thrill of insider knowledge that any good genre movie gives.
For all its faults you can't accuse the film of having no heart. The attention to detail and the many lovingly constructed scenes speak of months (if not years) of research and planning. This isn't simply a throwaway studio blockbuster. However its ultimate failing is that it lacks the courage of its convictions. Instead of a gritty, intimate, human portrait of the real truth behind the men who fight fires, we get a watered down version - all dolled up with big bangs and heart-tugging violin music.- By Alistair Fairweather
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