Promoting itself as a genuine portrait of a hardworking firefighter, Ladder 49 lacks any real emotion.
As Ladder 49 opens, Baltimore firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) gets trapped inside a blazing warehouse while rescuing a trapped civilian. With his escape routes either caved in or burned down, Jack has to keep his wits as he waits for Fire Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) and his fellow firefighters to rescue him. Lying in a bed of rubble, Jack has rather vivid and detailed flashbacks of pivotal moments in his life, including his first day at the firehouse, the day he met his wife-to-be at the supermarket, their wedding day, the birth of their daughter, and so on. While these flashbacks provide neat chronological accounts of his life, they do very little to shape or build Jack's character because they are focused on his heroic antics rather than the man underneath the uniform. The film also works feverishly to showcase the brotherly bond between the men, but doesn't extend beyond silly firehouse pranks, including putting a goose in someone's locker or tossing a lit newspaper into an occupied toilette stall. The only thing missing from these tawdry sitcom-like moments is a laugh track. Third Watch, the NBC drama following New York City police, paramedics and firefighters on the 3-11 p.m. shift, offers more character development and intrigue in a one-hour episode than this feature film dishes out in two hours.
Phoenix is both sweet and awkward in the role of Jack, a rookie firefighter who can't hide his enthusiasm about his line of work. Jack's charming side is demonstrated in his relationship with his wife, particularly in the intensely loving way Phoenix looks at his co-star Jacinda Barrett, whether they're at a crowded birthday bash or riding on the back of the fire truck following their humble small-town nuptials. Phoenix's Jack also has a slightly dim-witted side, which comes through in the ''Aw, shucks'' way he reacts to being the butt of many firehouse pranks. But there's a third, sadly missing dimension missing to Jack: He's a hero with no fire in his belly. Travolta, on the other hand, just isn't convincing in this blue-collar role of fire chief. Perhaps it's just that these characters are too damn perfect. Post 9/11, firefighters have become more than rescuers, they are, in the eyes of many Americans, heroes and Ladder 49 adopts the biased notion that they are also faultless.
Director Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting) visually captures the essence of this working class Baltimore neighborhood and its firehouse, from Jack's cluttered, wood-paneled home to Mike's utilitarian firehouse office. Production designer Tony Burrough paid meticulous attention to set details, particularly in how the backdrops age over a decade; Jack's house becomes junkier and his gear gets dingier. The controlled fires on the set look incredibly real and feel equally oppressive--and this is where Russell's direction really shines. A scene in which Jack enters his first burning building, for example, adds to the film's authenticity: The probie (firefighter lingo for a new guy) runs up the stairs too fast and doesn't aim the hose high enough. These small details remind moviegoers what an exact line of work this really is. But while Ladder 49 effectively demonstrates the risky and altruistic work firefighters do, it doesn't delve any deeper than its spectacular rescues. Throughout the film, Jack is asked what motivates him to run into a burning building when everyone else is running out--a question scribe Lewis Colick never lets Ladder 49's characters answer.
Ladder 49 lays the heroics on so thick that we never get a sense of what goes on underneath all the turnout gear. Once all the smoke clears, there's nothing there.