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The "Ladder' of success?

No movie about firefighters has set the box office ablaze since Backdraft in 1991. That slump appears ready to end with Ladder 49 (PG-13).

Joaquin Phoenix (The Village, Gladiator) plays Jack Morrison, a veteran firefighter trapped inside a burning 20-story building whose life passes before his eyes (and ours, in flashbacks) while awaiting rescue.

Some memories involve Jack's relationship with Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), a mentor and occasional accomplice in the pranks pulled on young firefighters around the station house. Others show the toll Jack's profession has taken on his wife (Jacinda Barrett) and children.

Ladder 49 was directed by Jay Russell, whose work on the heartwarming 2000 film My Dog Skip can almost make us forgive the drudgery of Tuck Everlasting. The film was screened too late for a Weekend review; a review will be published Friday on Page 2B.

_ STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

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