Eric D. Snider

Ladder 49

Even though firefighters are interesting enough to make every little boy want to be one when he grows up, few films are made about them. I think it's because they're too noble. Cops and doctors -- the other notable life-saving professions that ARE the subject of many films -- are subject to corruption and grievous error, which makes for compelling drama. Firefighters -- well, when was the last time you heard about a dirty fireman getting kicked off the force for accepting bribes? The guys are such paragons of heroism that I suspect Hollywood feels like there's nothing they can do with them, no "angle" to them.

Watching "Ladder 49," the fine new drama directed by Jay Russell ("My Dog Skip," "Tuck Everlasting"), not only did it make me want to be a fireman all over again, but it also made me wonder why we don't see more of this in movies: everyday (i.e., non-fantasy) heroics perpetrated by likable, sympathetic characters who are human but not scoundrels. "Ladder 49" is a feel-good movie in the best way. It's exciting and funny and sad and uplifting. If it didn't lose its focus for a while in the middle, it would be truly outstanding.

It is told mostly in flashback. In the present, Baltimore firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) has saved a man from a burning building only to fall through a collapsed floor and lie injured and near death two stories below. As he waits for his comrades to rescue him, his life as a fireman passes before our eyes.

I have no way of knowing first-hand, of course, but the way the film paints life at the firehouse feels ccurate. It's like a frat house, but one where the residents become intensely serious and professional every time an alarm sounds. In the off-hours, they haze rookies and play endless pranks on each other. (That one of these pranks should involve setting a newspaper on fire and slipping it under the door of an occupied bathroom stall is especially believable. It's human nature to make jokes about our greatest obstacles and fears, because doing so makes the thing less scary. So of course firefighters would include fire in their camaraderie.)

Morrison's mentor is Chief Kennedy, played by John Travolta in a rare good performance. Kennedy is more or less married to his work, but Morrison marries Linda (Jacinda Barrett), a woman he and one of his firefighter buddies pick up in a supermarket, of all places. They have the sort of arguments you expect couples to have in movies like this -- your job is too dangerous; you're never home; etc. -- but in general they are madly in love.

Lewis Colick's screenplay spends most of its energy establishing the lives of Morrison and his firehouse crew, so much that it neglects what we assume is inevitable: At some point, something tragic has to happen. When will it strike? And who will be the victim?

I think I like where it all winds up. The more I consider it, the more it makes sense, the more it feels like an appropriate resolution for the film. Phoenix's performance is probably the most sympathetic and likable of his career. If the film loses itself midstream, forgetting where it's going and which paths it needs to take to get there, Phoenix saves it with equal parts heroism and humanity.

Grade: B

Rated PG-13, scattered profanity, one F-word, fire-related intensity and some violent images

1 hr., 54 min.

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