2 stars (out of 4)
After seeing a trailer for the firefighter film, "Ladder 49," my friend dubbed the movie "hero-porn." I laughed, went to see it for myself and walked out with one conclusion: My friend is brilliant.
With a unique opportunity to capitalize on a nation enraptured with its firefighters, Jay Russell's film exploits an admirable profession by appropriating Sept. 11, 2001, as its own play thing. Porn presents the surgically enhanced actress as sex goddess, and "Ladder 49" presents the fireman as superman, a model citizen as honorable at home as on the job.
Both are orchestrated to give you a rise.
But manage to wiggle out of the film's muscular and manipulative grip and you'll see it for what it is: a condescending and cloying melodrama, constructed around the almighty flashback and slick in pretending to tell the human story. After all, firefighters are people too.
The film opens with Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) trapped in the bowels of a burning Baltimore building after saving the life of a civilian. While his mentor and chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) coordinates his rescue, Jack, with floors collapsed on top of him, flashes back on his career, his beautiful wife and kids, friends gained and friends lost.
The flashback convention itself isn't offensive--obvious, but not offensive. The visuals are vivid and sleek, with aggressive blazes and suffocating smoke. And the opportunity to peer inside the head and home life of a man who, in his chosen profession, risks his life for others, is welcome. But in order to make sure that the audience feels the utmost pain for Jack the fireman, screenwriter Lewis Colick and director Russell ("My Dog Skip," "Tuck Everlasting") simplify. Instead of nuanced, complicated and dimensional, Jack is a just-peachy, you-betcha, no-problemo, happy-to-help nice guy.
As a rookie, Jack is easily accepted into the firehouse, a beloved sibling in the band of brothers. Sure, the old-timers make him clean the bathroom, but that's just a show of affection. Captain Mike takes an immediate liking to Jack, sensing his strong moral fiber and exceptional firefighting skill, and takes him under his wing. (The role of Mike is actually a small part--though you wouldn't know it from the press--and Travolta phones it in.) And as if things weren't already going well enough, Jack meets the woman of his dreams (Linda, played by Jacinda Barrett of "Real World" fame) on the day of his first fire. As fate would have it, she loves him back immediately, and they soon marry.
Spouses of first-responders deal daily with the very real prospect of widowhood. We get a glimpse of this when Linda sees Jack scaling a burning building on the local news and when she expresses her fear of the red car: the official vehicle that brings word of a loved one's death. But we hardly see the effects of her husband's schedule on their growing family (shifts require that firefighters sleep at the firehouse) or the financial strains on the often one-parent household.
Phoenix, a fine actor with another bad script, tries his best to imbue Jack with shades of gray, but the story clearly calls for an emotional robot: Jack acts happy at wedding and sings The Ohio Players' "Fire" with buddies. Jack acts sad when best friend dies in fire. Captain Mike acts brave to console Jack. Press this button for conflicted.
As Jack's life unfolds just the way lives do in cliched movies, we periodically check up on him in the present. Surrounded by exploding wires and falling debris, Jack talks to Mike on his walkie-talkie and struggles to keep his eyes open. The idea here is for us to love Jack so much--from the flashbacks, what's not to love?--that we are overcome with emotion waiting for his rescue. And don't kid yourself, the other idea is for us to substitute Jack for the true heroes of 9/11, securing an even heavier impact.
Instead of cashing in on barely healed wounds, "Ladder 49" could have taken a different cue from pornography and gone the way of "Boogie Nights," a fascinating, difficult and honest glimpse into another storied profession.
Because none of us, not even the brave and heroic firefighter, is good all the time.
Directed by Jay Russell; written by Lewis Colick; photographed by James L. Carter; edited by Bud Smith; production designed by Tony Burrough; produced by Casey Silver. A Buena Vista Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:55. MPAA rating: PG-13 (intense fire and rescue situations, and for language).
Jack Morrison - Joaquin Phoenix
Mike Kennedy - John Travolta
Linda Morrison - Jacinda Barrett
Tommy Drake - Morris Chestnut