U.S. Release Date: October 1, 2004
Distributor: Buena Vista
Director: Jay Russell
Writer: Lewis Colick
Producer: Casey Silver
Composer: William Ross
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Billy Burke
Running Time: 1 hour and 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (intense fire and rescue situations, and for language)

by Scott Holleran

John Travolta as an earnest fire captain, Joaquin Phoenix as an idealistic fireman, Lewis Colick, who wrote the triumphant October Sky, and Jay Russell, who directed the charming My Dog Skip: with such top plot-oriented talent, what a wallop might have been packed into a movie about firemen.

But Ladder 49 unfolds in flashbacks, which, as applied here, diminishes both its immediate crisis and the back story. The firefight in which Phoenix's fireman becomes trapped gradually loses tension amid flashbacks recalling young love, the first fire alarm and the loss of a comrade.

Phoenix's life is crammed into installments—love, marriage, birthing, conflict, reunion—and, because he is lying in a blazing warehouse, the formulaic episodes disrupt the flow of action and make one too aware that they are a set-up for whether he makes it out alive. Brief flashbacks are sometimes bright and moving—but, like flashes, they do not light a clear path to his current predicament.

Joaquin Phoenix is perfect as the fireman at the story's center. Physically, he's more husky than chiseled, and director Russell doesn't overplay the actor's intensity. Phoenix's—and Ladder 49's—best scenes include tender and trying moments with his wife (Jacinda Barrett) and son (a powerful debut for Spencer Berglund) and an agonizing visit to the hospital.

Presenting his life as a prelude to the movie's dramatic conclusion robs Ladder 49 of both its sense of reality and urgency. The wife's work is mentioned once and, though it seems important to her, never again and all the setting up trivializes Phoenix's fate, which becomes painfully obvious. The firefighting is mixed; exciting shots dramatize the sense of peril in a gripping downtown skyscraper rescue while a jerky-camera Christmas Eve operation is a migraine-inducing mess.

For his part, Mr. Travolta needs another picture like Phenomenon, his last great role, and this is not it. He's too sloppy to project the sense of command required for this fire captain. As writer Colick and director Russell struggle to thread the firestorm through religious metaphor, his Cappy lacks the moral stature to serve as the guide.

It certainly doesn't help that the theme of the picture, self-sacrifice, does not lend itself to subtlety, and the movie's message that those with the most to lose are likely to lose the most begs the question why they're so eager to risk losing it. Instead, the notion that sacrifice is the noblest virtue is presented as self-evident. By the end, one still doesn't know why Phoenix walked into the firehouse for the first time.

Colick offers an attractive leading fireman in Phoenix's young Turk and the actor who played an imperial puff in Gladiator breaks through as an ordinary Joe, keeping Ladder 49 relatively composed. Whatever motivates the men who fight fires—the thrill of executing a flawless mission and accomplishing an impossible goal, the sense of family, selflessness—it is not fully dramatized here.

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