*** (out of 5)
October 1, 2004
Joaquin Phoenix as JACK MORRISON
John Travolta as CAPTAIN MIKE KENNEDY
Jacinda Barrett as LINDA MORRISON
Robert Patrick as LENNY RICHTER
Morris Chestnut as TOMMY DRAKE
Billy Burke as DENNIS GAUQUIN
Balthazar Getty as RAY GAUQUIN
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
Directed by: Jay Russell
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
After the horrible events of September 11, I fully expected to be bombarded with action movies about everyday heroes. However, that wave of films never hit .I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because films about firemen are too expensive to make. Maybe the industry realized that they’ll never top “Backdraft,” the “Citizen Kane” of firefighter films. Maybe the country was still hurting and didn’t want to exploit the real heroes in our society.
With that said, even though “Ladder 49” wasn’t the greatest film ever made, it was good that it was made. To borrow a phrase from Mel Gibson when he was promoting “The Passion of the Christ,” a film like “Ladder 49” is good for America’s soul.
“Ladder 49” tells the story of a Chicago firefighter named Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix). It begins with a towering inferno where he and his fellow firemen are trying to rescue civilians trapped inside. However, after saving someone from the twelfth floor, Jack falls through the floor and is injured. Now, his friends must mount a rescue mission to get him out of the building before it’s too late.
While suffering from internal injuries, Jack flashes back to his life as a fireman. We see his story from his early stages as a recruit, all the way up to the days leading up to the present. We meet his wife and watch their relationship grow. We also see the tragedies that strike the families of the other firemen in the squad.
Throughout a series of flashbacks, we see what makes Jack tick – why he does what he does, the dangers he faces every day, the sacrifices he makes. Ultimately, this isn’t a standard story from the action movie library. Rather, it’s a character study of Jack. Throughout the film we learn his motivations, which can sometimes elude us. After all, once you get past the adrenaline rush, don’t we all ask ourselves why firemen run into a burning building while everyone else is running out?
I will say that I was impressed with the acting in this film. Some performances are over the top, but most of the cast delivers a good performance, and no one is really overshadowed by their fellow actors. Even John Travolta, who hasn’t turned in a really good performance since “Pulp Fiction,” shows his acting chops once again.
There are some rough spots and cliches in the story, and actually the characters are not all that compelling. They are real, though. It’s a touching story, but not because I was necessarily into Jack’s life. What touched me was the fact that this is about real people doing the work of heroes.
I make a living as a writer. I don’t rake in the cash, but I probably do well enough to compare my income to an average fireman. However, there’s so little risks that I take. When I turn on my computer to start spilling words onto a page, my biggest worry is carpal tunnel syndrome. Pain, scarring, disfigurement and ultimately death are the farthest things from my mind. I never have to worry that one day, I’ll go upstairs to write a piece and never come home.
But firefighters face these dangers every day – and sometimes they don’t make it home. My hat goes off to them. They’re better human beings than I am, ‘cause I don’t think I could take it.