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Ladder 49

2006-03-30 12:52


"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

Jay Russell's third film is a tragic waste of what could have been one of the definitive movie on fire-fighters.

lorna 2005/02/03 12:51 PM
ladder 49 heard it's not so good Elektra
Kevin 2005/02/04 6:51 AM
Ladder 49 Alistair Fairweather clealry has no idea what what Mr & Mrs Moviegoer enjoys at the movies. I was at a preview of this movie on Wednesday evening, with almost a full house, and even the giggling group of school kids (why were they even there on a school night ?) stopped their antics when the movie started to Get Real. By the end of it, there wasn't a person there that didn't shed a tear, male and female. What a good movie. I am usually very critical of movies, picking up on every slight oversight regarding glasses that half empty, mysteriously fill themselves and empty again, hairdo's that change themselves whilst the person is sitting in the same poisition etc, but there was none of that with this movie. I am a firm believe that any movie that can make you laugh, cry, or be physically sick, must be a good one, and this one had everyone in tears. Great movie and one that should definately be seen. Yes
terry 2005/02/11 3:22 PM
ladder 49 pathetic waste of 115 minutes-boring, the action is typically 911, although these firemen only do fires elektra
gunther 2005/02/19 7:26 PM
ladder49 Good enterment yes
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