Ladder 49 should make a lot of people happy. That includes firefighters, who should appreciate what amounts to a big, heartfelt thank-you for all their good work; moviegoers yearning for a grand, but uncomplicated, action flick that's unabashedly sentimental, but not maudlin; and Baltimoreans of all stripes, who should get a kick out of seeing their city in all its glory (and not sitting in for Cleveland or D.C. or some other burg).
Directed by Jay Russell (My Dog Skip, Tuck Everlasting), displaying his customary flair for family-friendly entertainment with just enough of an edge to keep the naysayers at bay, the movie takes its audience into the life of a fictional Baltimore firehouse (played by a former one on Gorsuch Avenue). Specifically, it takes its audience into the life of firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), following him from raw recruit to seasoned vet to imperiled hero.
The imperiled hero part may strike some as a bit cliched; as the film opens, Morrison and his compatriots are battling a roaring blaze in a grain elevator when Morrison falls through a weakened floor and is trapped deep within the fire. The movie uses the occasion to have him flash back on his career, and Ladder 49 alternates scenes of the company's frantic attempts to rescue one of its own with Morrison's development as a firefighter, husband and guy trying to advance in his career.
We see Morrison as a hazed rookie, watch him battle his first fire and smile as he meets his soon-to-be wife.
For Morrison, marriage proves a mixed blessing. Sure, he loves his wife, but as he and Linda (the beguiling Jacinda Barrett) start a family, a sense of guilt grows. Is it fair, he wonders, for him to put his life constantly on the line, at the potential cost of leaving behind a widow and two fatherless children? Ladder 49 pays lip service to that dilemma, but doesn't really develop their relationship fully enough; that, perhaps, would require a separate movie.
The more essential relationship is that between Morrison and his fellow firefighters, especially their leader, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), who quickly adopts Morrison as his all-but-son. Lewis Colick's script never adequately explains why the bond exists in the first place, but Phoenix and Travolta make the relationship work.
For a non-firefighter, it's impossible to say with certainty how accurately the profession is portrayed onscreen, but it sure feels real. After years of post-9/11 deification, in which firefighters and other public safety professionals have been seen as just short of superhuman, it's nice to see a tribute - and that's what Ladder 49 is - that shows them for what they are. They're guys (and gals, though you wouldn't know it from this film) doing a job to the best of their ability and accepting the dangers as part of the job description.
During one spectacular rescue, in which Morrison is lowered from a roof to save someone trapped on a ledge, things start going dangerously wrong, and both rescuer and rescuee sound equally scared. Such a depiction doesn't make anyone seem less heroic, just more human - and, if anything, even more admirable.
Russell's direction crackles. When these guys enter a burning building, you can feel the hairs on your forearm getting singed. Special effect or not - most of the fires are real, and while the movie was being filmed here last year, more than a few concerned citizens called 911 to report burning buildings - Ladder 49 certainly makes its audience feel the heat.
Phoenix anchors things nicely as Morrison; perhaps this is as risky a role as he's taken, given that its success rests on audiences accepting him as an Average Joe who happens to make a living by running into burning buildings. But the actor proves up to the challenge, with a performance of quiet strength that never resorts to showmanship. Even his famously scarred upper lip works to his advantage, suggesting this is a guy who's been through the ringer a few times.
Travolta, well on his way to becoming one of Hollywood's favorite authority figures, turns in another solid performance. Admittedly, he can do these kinds of roles in his sleep, and yet Travolta manages to make Kennedy likable and inspirational. A scene in which he quietly, almost off-handedly, talks about his firefighter father with Morrison says as much about Kennedy's character and inspiration as pages of exposition would.
Ladder 49 could have done without William Ross' angst-ridden score; for a film that strives mightily to avoid hyperbole, the music sounds more appropriate for a TV movie of the week. The film could have spent a little more time on the day-to-day reality of firefighting, a job where, on a good day, nothing happens. And there's some speechifying at the end that only serves to underscore a point that doesn't need underscoring.
But those are forgivable missteps for a movie that celebrates heroes without turning them into saints.