"Ladder 49," a Hollywood action-melodrama in Hollywood's biggest, brawniest tradition, is structured like an old-fashioned western, with lots of showdowns and chases and men being men. Only instead of broncos, these cowboys break flames that seem to taunt and mock them like sentient beings. The posses ride red trucks with clanging bells, inspiring awe and admiration from the citizens they protect every day with laconic, offhand courage.
These are firefighters -- loyal friends, good husbands and fathers, men who stave off the occupational hazards of jitters and cabin fever with practical jokes and ribald pranks, who like to drink and spin yarns, and whose love for each other is deep and abiding. They're strong men, real men, and to watch "Ladder 49" is to realize how few opportunities there are anymore to celebrate them on-screen without succumbing to macho posturing or maudlin cliches.
For the most part, "Ladder 49" avoids those pitfalls; or, more accurately, it deploys them in ways that feel genuine and earned. Joaquin Phoenix plays Jack Morrison, a rookie firefighter with a Baltimore fire station who comes under the tutelage of a seasoned captain, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta). In the course of "Ladder 49," Morrison's life and career unfold in a series of flashbacks, as he fights his first fire, bonds with his colleagues, meets and marries his wife (the terrific Jacinda Barrett), has a couple of kids and endures the irony of loving his job most just at the point when its dangers are becoming harder to bear for his burgeoning family.
Those tensions, as well as the tribal rituals, joys and pride of the job, are brought to vivid life in "Ladder 49," which was written by Lewis Colick ("October Sky") and directed by Jay Russell ("Tuck Everlasting"). The filmmakers have adroitly threaded the needle of being true to the firefighting life while mythologizing it just enough to be entertaining; if the action in "Ladder 49" is a bit more compressed and spectacular than in reality, it's doubtful many firefighters will take issue.
Often using shaky, hand-held cameras, Russell immediately plunges the audience straight into the action, in this case a devastating fire in a huge grain elevator where Jack is stranded after a spectacular rescue. From there, Russell flashes back to several earlier conflagrations, each of which has its own character and particular energy as an enemy Jack and his buddies must vanquish. But Russell is just as interested in the culture of firefighting as in its adrenaline-fueled sense of adventure. It's in these scenes that Phoenix flourishes, seeming to physically fill out and grow in a role that demands he be believed as both a newbie and a veteran. (Travolta is less believable, at least at first, as the old Irish salt dispensing hard-won wisdom, but by the film's harrowing last half-hour we're buying him all the way.)
In addition to classic westerns, "Ladder 49" may well remind viewers of "The Perfect Storm," another action picture based on the working life of real men (and a few women). Like that film, "Ladder 49" finds as much of its texture and drama in the collective domestic life of its characters as it does in their heroic exploits and derring-do. And, as in "The Perfect Storm," things don't always end particularly well for the protagonists.
"Ladder 49" has been designed not to leave a dry eye in the house and it won't, not only because Phoenix, Travolta and their co-stars do such a good job of humanizing their characters, but because of the inevitable echoes of Sept. 11, 2001. Although it's never mentioned explicitly, that day is inscribed in the warp and woof of the picture, which pays homage to its heroes in signature Hollywood style. It's outsized, yes, and formulaic, and ultimately floridly sentimental. But the tears, when they come, are cathartic, not cheap. "Ladder 49" offers audiences a real rarity in theaters these days: a good, honest cry.
Ladder 49 (115 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense fire and rescue situations and mild profanity.