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Ladder 49 /

Rated: PG-13

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Billy Burke, Jay Hernandez

Directed by: Jay Russell

Produced by: Casey Silver, Chris Salvaterra, Whitney Green
Written by:
Lewis Colick
Distributor: Touchstone Pictures

 

Joaquin Phoenix in Touchstone's Ladder 49
Jacinda Barrett and John Travolta in Touchstone's Ladder 49
John Travolta , Kevin Chapman and Joaquin Phoenix in Touchstone's Ladder 49

     Iíve witnessed melodrama seep from the eyes and ears of Hollywood and foam from its mouth, over the last few years. Mastering the art of fake emotion seems to be a forte of mainstream filmmakers, nowadays. One could say that such material fills the cup of tea that the minds behind Ladder 49 wholeheartedly slurp throughout their films duration, and I can accept that. But, get this: their film, in its rather standard proportions, goes against the grain, in terms of conventions. This, alone, spoke to me. At this movieís heart is another run-of-the-mill story about heroism in modern day society. However, director Jay Russell and writer Lewis Colick have fashioned quite the rarity, in terms of detail and sympathy. I was able to enjoy it, simply because of the fact that it is about good people who are admirable. How often, in this type of film, does one find characters that are actually human? Ladder 49 belongs to a short list of gems.

     Iím not just speaking of the firefighters at the root of the story when it comes to humaneness, either. The crew behind engine forty-nine, managed by Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), is certainly a heroic group, but they are mere background figures in the movie. At the heart of Ladder 49 lies the story of a young and growing family. Jack Morrison (Joaquin Pheonix) is a rookie fireman at the beginning of the film, reporting for duty and then quickly growing fond of his newfound brotherhood of fellow workers. Between the life, the fun, and the loss, Ladder 49 gains the audienceís attention and attachment rather quick, even if it borders being overly sappy at times. Luckily, it does manage to always remain believable, mostly thanks to the amazingly accurate firefighting scenes that have been hailed as being very realistic by experts.

     Later on in Ladder 49, Jack meets a young woman named Linda (Jacinda Barrett), in a grocery store, when his buddy tries to hit on her friend. The two instantly click together. With the advantage of double-dating on his side, he pursues romance with her, eventually leading to their marriage. Together, the couple has two children. In the midst of this, Jack remains a firefighter, which allows his wife and kidsí worrisome attitude towards his profession to arise, in a way that feels extremely natural. Ladder 49 has a knack for familial concepts, which is surprising, considering the limited amount of things that many may expect it to accomplish. I welcomed all of its warmth with glee. Linda and Jack do not have a perfect marriage, but they can boast a happy and loving one. Again, how many other movies have two central characters like these?

     The film has a very interesting narrative structure, swapping from the present to the past, rather frequently. Jack and Lindaís story is told through flashbacks (even though I am hesitant to use that term to describe them), and between every two or three of these scenes, the filmís attention shifts to a life-and-death firefighting situation that Jack finds himself in. As intentional as the irony of the juxtaposition of moody moments in time in the movie may be, it always attains a certain level of a bitter, ďoh, this movie is so goodĒ kind of sorrowful greatness. Every time Jackís family crosses their fingers in hopes of his safety on the job, we realize that, by the end of the picture, he could very well burn to his death. Perhaps the ending is predictable, but I sure didnít see it coming. Maybe I was caught up in the moment, or maybe Iím just a sucker. Either way, I couldnít care less about such.

     Two hours ago, I sat down to write this review, knowing precisely what I wanted to say, but the lines that I typed into my word processor just didnít flow well. As ridiculous as it may sound, Ladder 49 is a tough experience to put into words. Its well-rounded goodness really never ceased to leave me transfixed, even if it is all just Hollywood drama. After I closed my eyes for a little while as I laid in bed, though, I, instantly and ironically, stumbled on the way I would express myself in this review. Ladder 49 is a movie that is true to itself and knows where its heart should be. It functions both as a tale of life and one of the miraculous city firefighters who put their necks on the line each and every day, to save lives (mind my cheesy phrasing). I didnít expect that I would ever be saying this, but, as far as the fall movie season is concerned, this motion picture leads the pack. Not that that is any huge feat, but it is still a title to be honored.

-Danny, Bucket Reviews (11.10.2004)


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