out of Five
Running time: 115
Surprisingly dull drama, despite its obvious good intentions – the acting and the effects are both fine, but it’s let down by a humourless, cliché-laden script.
The movies have always lauded firemen as heroes (see, for example, the superior, though still not brilliant Backdraft), but these days their heroism has a direct association with 9/11 and Hollywood has obviously decided that it’s time to exploit that – witness Ladder 49 and Dennis Leary’s new TV show Rescue Me. Sadly, though it’s watchable enough, Ladder 49 has little to recommend it; basically, Backdraft was better and that’s not saying very much.
Impressive Action Opening
The film opens with an impressive action sequence before we’ve even met any of the characters. Joaquin Phoenix plays fireman Jack Morrison, who gets trapped in a burning building during the opening sequence, allowing the rest of the film to flash back to his life and career as a Heroic Fireman Type. This includes his relationships with his boss, Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), his wife (Jacinda Barrett) and his fellow firefighters, including Morris Chestnut, Robert Patrick and Jay Hernandez. Meanwhile, Kennedy and his men struggle to find and rescue Jack before it’s too late…
The acting is fine, though none of the characters are especially complex. Phoenix is a watchable actor but he’s given precious little to do. It’s also a shame that the script doesn’t allow him to have a sense of humour beyond station-house pranks – he could really have used some witty lines. Barrett does better; her character is a little more interesting than the usual stock cliché, but it’s not enough to lift the film to the point where you really care all that much.
Travolta Sheds Fat Gains Skill
To be fair, Travolta is pretty good – his recent weight loss (see also The Punisher) has done wonders for his acting ability and he’s a credible enough fire chief. Of the supporting cast, Robert Patrick (Terminator 2) is probably the stand-out, though he deserves better roles than this. The film also criminally wastes latino heart-throb Jay Hernandez (crazy/beautiful), to the point where you suspect that he had a sub-plot that ended up on the cutting room floor.
With a film this clichéd, there is a certain amount of fun to be had in trying to guess which character is going to get horribly burned, which one’s going to die, which one’s going to end up in a fist fight with the hero, and so on. However, when that’s over, all you’re really left with is a gloopy mess of sentimentality designed to manipulate you into emotions that the film hasn’t really earned, due to its underdeveloped characters.
In short, this is watchable enough but nothing special. If it’s Heroic
Firemen Action you’re after, you’re better off either watching Rescue Me or renting Backdraft. Hell, the look of surprise on video shop employee’s face will probably be more entertaining than the whole of Ladder 49.