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"Ladder 49' lacks spark

The heroism and sacrifice of Sept. 11, 2001, reminded Americans of the importance of police officers and firefighters. While movies centered around police abound, however, Hollywood largely has turned a blind eye to firefighters.

In fact, the last screen hero seen rushing into a burning building (albeit plain clothed) was . . . Spider-Man.

Firefighters deserve better, and the makers of Ladder 49 are keenly aware of this. Perhaps too aware. The film is so gushingly reverent it descends into schmaltz.

That's unfortunate, because the film has some good qualities, including a strong supporting cast and fire-fighting scenes that feel true to life. If the rest of the movie had been handled with more restraint and a lot less melodrama, it might have worked as the tribute its makers intended.

The best quality of Ladder 49: It's not Backdraft. That was Hollywood's most recent firefighter-focused film, released a scant 13 years ago. Ron Howard's absurd tale crumbled from the strain of five movies' worth of plots and characters, including a pyromaniac Hannibal Lecter clone.

Ladder 49 goes completely in the other direction, telling an incredibly simple tale in, unfortunately, by-the-numbers fashion.

Virtually the entire story is told in a series of flashbacks by Baltimore firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix, The Village), whose life is played out while he is trapped inside an enormous burning warehouse. It starts with his first day on the job, hazing rituals and his meeting with Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta).

Travolta's supporting role obviously was expanded to give him more screen time. But he seems out of place and constantly hams it up. At least he helps balance Phoenix's disappointingly colorless performance.

Everything that occurs away from a fire is formulaic: Jack meets his wife-to-be (Jacinda Barrett, The Human Stain) and starts a family. He bonds with his firehouse buddies, played by such a recognizable assortment of character actors you can bet not everyone will survive the narrative unscathed.

Oh, and we watch Jack fight a whole lot of fires. Thank goodness. Ladder 49 lights up whenever the crew goes out on a call.

The fire-fighting scenes, while exciting, are very different from the overblown spectacles of Backdraft. Director Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting) obviously paid close attention to the technical advice of his consultants. Russell includes numerous specific details instead of glossing over them for dramatic effect. As a result, the danger seems real, the heroes extremely human and vulnerable. It's too bad the rest of Ladder 49 plays like a lukewarm blue-collar soap opera.

Ladder 49 gains a few points for a refreshing denouement that clearly wasn't the result of test screenings. Then it immediately loses points for drowning its subsequent closing scene in an excruciatingly cheesy, entirely inappropriate tune. Ladder 49 has its heart in the right place, but the story never ignites.


Ladder 49

Grade: C

Director: Jay Russell

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Billy Burke, Robert Patrick, Balthazar Getty, Morris Chestnut, Jay Hernandez, Tim Guinee

Screenplay: Lewis Colick

Rating: PG-13; violence, profanity

Running time: 118 min.