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'Ladder 49': You Know the Drill

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2004; Page WE34

THERE ARE real firefighters in the world who regularly perform heroic deeds. That is an inarguable fact, and it should not be confused with discussion of "Ladder 49," a movie that attempts to convey such deeds in the visual Esperanto of Budweiser commercials and Hollywood action films, using the five-alarm star power of John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix.

Is the movie any good? Does it convey the reality of firefighting heroics? Does it move you? That depends enormously on your susceptibility to the heroic shorthand that has become so commonplace on our entertainment screens large and small.

Firefighter, save thyself: Joaquin Phoenix as Jack Morrison, a wet-behind-the-ears "probie" who gets in a hot spot looking to make a name for himself in "Ladder 49." (Ron Phillips -- Touchstone Pictures)

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My feeling is, the bigger and more obvious the poignancy of the subject, the harder the movie has to work to earn its own poignancy. We know it's heroic to break into fiery buildings and pull out the helpless. But it's billboard obvious. We need original, surprising things to help us appreciate these ideas. Perhaps we need a character who has to warm up to the calling of heroism, who has a very interesting reason to join the fire department. Perhaps the hero should be a woman, a gay man or an Arab American who has suffered from post-9/11 backlash. As they learn to become true firefighters, and as their colleagues learn to accept that there are many kinds of heroes, then so would we.

In the case of "Ladder 49," written by Lewis Colick and directed by Jay ("My Dog Skip") Russell, we meet Jack Morrison (Phoenix), who has it in mind to be a hero all along and who just can't wait to get into the licking flames and start saving people. Again, many firefighters have this passion. Their job is a calling. But this is expected. This is the gig.

Jack joins a Baltimore firehouse as a "probie" (probationary) under the benevolent den-daddy eye of Capt. Mike Kennedy (Travolta), and almost instantly gets a special kind of hazing. He's told to confess to a "priest" behind a curtain, but soon learns he's baring his soul to the whole company hiding there. (I would have saved this surprise, except that it's given away in the trailer.)

Jack's colleagues (including Morris Chestnut and Robert Patrick) are cutups, the usual high-fiving heroes who drink hard and save lives. They're all so darned heroic and chummy and funny and winky and self-supporting, you'd think this was a Ron Howard movie. But Howard already made that film; it's called "Backdraft."

In a scenario that spans 10 years, Jack marries a sweet gal named Linda (Jacinda Barrett) and has two kids. They're happy, mostly. He's a good dad. He keeps fighting fires. He does everything just right. But then he gets caught in a fire and needs rescuing himself.

The movie's message is the same in the beginning as it is in the middle and the end: Firefighters are heroes. They risk their lives to save people. They play hard, work hard and never know if they'll all come back alive. Do we know that going in? Yes. Do we leave with the same wisdom? Pretty much, yes. Where's the part where we come face to face with issues we hadn't really considered? Not in this movie.

"Ladder 49" comes across as a public service announcement, or the firefighting equivalent of an Army recruitment commercial. But it's not a movie that engages you deeper than its heart-on-the-sleeve emotions. Sure, there are touching moments. These actors are professionals. But even the best scenes feel canned, secondhand, packaged. We've seen this all before. Should a Hollywood movie be challenged to do more than confirm our most superficial feelings and knowledge about a subject? The problem is, while watching this, I had the finger-twiddling time to wonder about such things. Not a great sign.

LADDER 49 (PG-13, 115 minutes) -- Contains burn injuries, overall emotional intensity and mild profanity. Area theaters.

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