2004-10-22 / Columnists

‘Ladder 49’ – Fire Crier

One of the year’s biggest weepers is, surprisingly enough, about macho firemen.

A post 9/11 tearjerker, “Ladder 49” has a hero with a heart of gold, nerves of steel and doomed from the film’s beginning. Trapped and disabled in a “fully-involved” warehouse inferno, Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) lies amidst smoke, heat, debris and falling flames recalling his short, sweet life as a professional firefighter in Baltimore. Slipping into a series of flashbacks, the film first shows rookie Jack arriving at the firehouse and meeting his boss, Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), who is boozing it up in boxer shorts. After an initiation in the form of a phony confession service, Jack is welcomed as one of the boys.

Soon, the bad stuff begins as Jack and the boys fight untold fires, thanklessly risking life and limb to save others. Jack meets perfect girl Linda (Jacinda Barrett) in a grocery store, then after introducing her to his buddies in one of many beer-guzzling bar scenes, Jack and Linda get married. They have two beautiful kids and a storybook relationship, which is marred only by Jack’s willingness to leap into harm’s way.

Directed by Jay Russell (“My Dog Skip”) from a Lewis Colick script, “Ladder 49” may feature Travolta and Phoenix as its stars, but the real scene stealer is fire, itself, courtesy of superior special effects. Unlike “Backdraft,” the blazes are believable, roaring out of windows and obscuring visibility with billowing black smoke. What also remains in the dark, however, is character development, leaving Jack and his buddies with paper-thin personalities.

Still, because they care so much for their fellow man, woman and child, we care about them and the great sacrifices they make. Which is why, when they die, it’s tear-jerker time. Only the most insensitive will resist the emotionalism in the film’s funereal sequences, particularly in the shadow of the World Trade Center tragedy.

If you want a good cry, try “Ladder 49.”

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