Ladder 49 stars Joaquin Phoenix as Jack Morrison, a Baltimore fireman trapped in a towering inferno. While laying on unstable ground and barely able to move a muscle, he reminisces about his life in the department – from his first day as a rookie, to his first time tackling a fire, to meeting and marrying his wife Linda (Jacinda Barrett.) Through these memories he contemplates the moral obligations, risks and personal effects of his difficult job.
Ladder 49 attempts to pay tribute to what is essentially a very commendable job, which requires an abundance of courage and dedication. However, it doesn’t quite get to grips with the psychological ramifications of such a brave duty.
Instead, the firefighters of Baltimore’s Ladder 49 are shown playing pool, eating and playing wacky jokes on each rather than spending their time on duty training and taking robust health and safety checks that are imperative for a working fire department. Yes, it may focus of the brotherhood-like relationship that these working-buddies have but there needs to be something more to make it seem real and tangible, especially as Ladder 49 has been touted as homage to real life firefighters.
However, the films set pieces and stunts are very plausible and often tense – these unequivocally do show the true horrors of what can happen on the job. Where the film loses its clutch on the audience is the banal cut and paste’ prologues that show Jack Morrison’s life in mundane detail.
The feel of the film is lost whenever we are taken back to a particular point in Jack’s life, such as his first meeting with his Captain (played by John Travolta) or when he met his wife. Just as you feel that you are getting close to whom Jack actually is, we are whisked away outside the building where the team are trying to save his life.
Surprisingly, John Travolta does very little with his character. It is actually rather a sterile role for him, as Phoenix takes the central role. Travolta offers some comedic moments, particularly on his first meeting with Jack where he plays a prank on the new recruit by acting as a drunk wearing only a hideous pair of red and black boxer shorts.
Ladder 49 can be far too twee and detachable at times as it struggles to handle such delicate material in a sensitive and tactful manner just a few years after the tragic events of September 11 2001.
What could have been a good, honest tribute to such brave individuals goes wrong when it attempts to be something more than it actually is. Ladder 49 becomes claustrophobic – it feels like there is a solid little picture that manages to gain some serious insights into the fire department yeaning to get out of a Hollywood framework and the taglines of its two leading stars.