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It was thirteen years ago that Ron Howard's ode to firefighters hit
theaters with 1991's Backdraft. This was before Howard went on to
direct such popular fare as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. This was
before Kurt Russell figured that Captain Ron might a good idea, and
most importantly, this was before September 11, 2001.
To say that our impression of firefighters changed that day sounds, well, awkward. Firefighters have always been held in high regard. They run into burning buildings while everyone else is running out. They put their lives on the line to save others. It is a courage that most of us would like to think we have, but few of us are ever put into a position to test.
On September 11, we watched in awe as the buildings collapsed and 340 firefighters were taken from us prematurely. Although the loss of lives that day included thousands of innocents, we warmed to our heroes and it brought their efforts and incredible bravado back to our attention. Immediately after the tragic events, it was not uncommon to see people wave or salute firefighters in the most remote regions of our country. On CNN we began to hear stories of the personal lives of these men. Their support. Their sacrifices.
It is not surprising therefore that our newly energized interest was translated into big screen emotional powerhouses. In 2002, Anthony LaPaglia and Sigourney Weaver played a firefighter and a writer to prepare eulogies for those fallen in the attacks in The Guys. Now, in 2004, red-hot Joaquin Pheonix and John Travolta have teamed up to bring us the highly effective Ladder 49.
Ladder 49 starts with a fire in a large Baltimore factory where multiple firemen have charged to look for survivors and extinguish the posing threat.
Lead by seasoned veteran Jack Morrison (Pheonix), the firemen are able to rescue a helpless employee before the floor gives way trapping Morrison within the building inferno. As Jack lays there helpless awaiting the rescue from his peers, we are sent back in time via the Hollywood standard flashback to understand what brought Jack to his present peril. We see Jack as he enters the fire hall for the first time and meets Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) who takes the new probie under his wing and over the years develops a bond that includes being there when Jack gets married, has kids and steps into the shoes of a search and rescue firefighter who perishes when a roof gives way during a routine house fire. We learn how the firemen bond, how they drink together rather heavily and regularly and how when they lose one of their own, the emotional impact on them and their families
Don't get me wrong, all the above drama plays out while buildings burn, people are rescued from skyscrapers and people are saved from what would be sheer death if not for the charging brave souls of the local Fire Department. There is enough action to keep the younger audiences looking for the quick rush occupied while enough firemen running around in tight t-shirts to keep the women equally transfixed.
But it is the story that sets this film apart from any other firefighting film in memory. We get a good glimpse into the lives of the men and portrait of a young man learning the ropes and growing within the culture and environment that can be sometimes loose and playful only to become serious and deadly at the sound of a bell. Director Jay Russell (My Dog Skip) packs an emotional punch that doesn't try and suck it out of the audience with an unexpected end. Instead, we see Jack being trapped in the opening sequence and we can pretty much see the writing on the wall before the tragic events play out before our eyes.
For all the focus played to the rising star Pheonix, it is the supporting cast that really stands out within the confines of the 105 minute running time. Travolta seems comfortable in playing a supporting role and is effective and powerful in his portrayal as the Captain of an efficiently run firehouse. Also standing above the average fare is Jacinda Barrett who plays Jacks wife. Yet another beautiful Australian actress, Barrett has the largest load in the film as the anchor that questions why her husband and father of her children would risk his lives for others ignoring his own well being. She both shows anxiety and support in her understanding of his passion and it is her strength that gives the film its heart.
To compare Ladder 49 to Backdraft would be unfair. Backdraft did little to bolster our impression of the firefighting community while Ladder 49 shows them for what they deserve to be recognized as heroes who at the sound of an alarm will put themselves in harms way to help others.
First, let me explain the movie title.
The firehouse featured in the movie has 2 vehicles. One of them is the more conventional fire truck you see around, the one with the water hoses. That truck is codenamed Engine 33 in this movie. Ladder 49 is its companion truck, the one with the mega-ladder. This truck comprises of the brave men in the fire department's rescue team, those who risk their lives going into burning buildings without water (unlike Engine 33's), for the sole mission of saving other people's lives.
Which raises the question everyone asks of emergency responders (police, fire dept, etc) - what makes them do what they do? In this case, also raised in the movie, what makes them rush into a burning building when everyone else is running out?
We follow the life of Joaquin Phoenix's character, Jack Morrison, whom we see from rookie firefighter (waterboy) to hero, from singlehood to fatherhood. This film, through his character, humanizes emergency responders, their lives, their camaraderie, their courage. It also explores relationships within their families, which is key, as family members struggle to understand the risks their spouses/fathers undertake everyday in their job.
Don't expect another Backdraft, which was more of an "arson-whodunnit", with spectacular beastly fires engulfing the screen. This film dwells more on characterization and drama, with well placed action set pieces between slow moments which will set you thinking, and at the end of the film, appreciating the courage of these brave men and the threats they face daily in their job.
For analogy, this is your basic regular American hamburger - not a
whopper with added cheese. No spice. Not peppered up. The movie "Ladder
49" is brave in itself that the straightforward script included no foul
language, no cliff-hanger action sequence, sappy melodrama or moral
preaching. It's telling the life of a fireman as it is through simple
everyday vignettes, the rookie fireman, the camaraderie at the
firehouse, the family anguish - the profession of a fireman that many
of us might have taken for granted. This can very well be a simple
telling of the life of a policeman or a soldier in active duty
overseas. Unless something disastrous really happens and drastically
affects us close to home, we can be unaware of how lucky we are, being
able to go about our everyday life, 'safely and peacefully' living in
America, with local law enforcement, firefighting emergency services
and homeland security efforts available to us.
There are visual effects of fires a-blazing and fire fighting scenes inside and outside of buildings, but there's no dramatic build up to 'glamour' dazzle you like other Hollywood (blockbuster) movies. The initial sequence of the movie suggests a 'hanging' question: will Joaquin Phoenix's character (Jack) survive? But the diverted flashbacks keep our interest: how this rookie fireman came to be a firefighter in action, building a family, the family strife around his dream of a 'riskier' role on Engine 33 team, the loss of lives, the saving of lives. The pace may be leisurely at times and the plot may seem mild to some. We get to see Joaquin Phoenix in a 'lighter' less demanding role (vs. "Gladiator" 2000, "Buffalo Soldiers" 2001 or "Clay Pigeons" 1998). John Travolta is in a supporting role (Captain Mike), giving lightness (smiles) and dignity to the fire chief he portrays.
This is not like "Backdraft" 1991. The apparent danger and risks of the life of a fireman and family is the crux of the storyline. This is a family fare for all - a tribute to the firefighters whose bravery we are grateful of. I appreciate the fact that death is treated as part of life and that we do not go about laying blame on others or beat ourselves up (we learn, stick together and go on). Ah, the firm gentleness in his direction, Jay Russell (who directed "Tuck Everlasting" 2002, "My Dog Skip" 2000) doesn't thrust anything in our face, yet subtly provides short gem moments, and the noteworthy words coming from Travolta, we would remember, won't we?
A terrible blaze traps a firefighter (Joaquin Phoenix) in a Baltimore building. As his co-workers (led by chief John Travolta) try to figure out a way to help him escape, Phoenix thinks about the last 10 years of his life. Through those years of fighting fires he experienced triumph (meeting and marrying the love of his life, Jacinda Barrett) and also living through several tragedies (deaths and injuries to fellow firemen). "Ladder 49" is comparable to a legendary athlete, it is not always great but it is great when it has to be. The movie has many shortcomings. There are dead spots galore and watching firefighters getting drunk in wild bars and playing silly pranks on one another do not always put them in a favorable light. However, the film's final act is excellent as we learn what Phoenix's fate is. In many ways an homage to those brave individuals in New York who sacrificed all during the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and also a deceptively smart character study. Travolta is excellent and Phoenix is nearly as good. Members of the supporting cast all have their moments and by the end "Ladder 49" climbed high enough for me. 4 stars out of 5.
Ladder 49 is directed by Jay Russell and stars Joaquin Phoenix, John
Travolta, and Jacinda Barrett. Ladder 49 is the story of Jack Morrison
(Phoenix), a firefighter and his life. These are the real heroes of
life and it's great to see another firefighter movie, this time in a
post 9/11 world.
The movie may look bad from the trailers and it looks like the climax is predictable but the movie is put in a way that keeps you hooked and interested, making it a pleasant surprise for me this year.
Jack Morrison is a firefighter and starts out as a rookie at the Baltimore Fire Department known as Ladder 49 and Engine 33. He goes through the tough moments and the fun moments as a firefighter and starts to love his job and his fellow co-workers including Captain Mike Kennedy (Travolta). They become a family and you see Jack go through his life, his Catholic life (I'm impressed). He learns more, meets a woman (Barret) who he ends up marrying and life is good. Accidents happen though as they go through tough fires. The fire that happens at the beginning is the climax but is gradually explained throughout the whole movie.
Overall, Ladder 49 is a great firefighter movie filled with intense and thrilling fire-fighting action. It's filled with buddy comedy and a good dose of drama too. Again, these are the real heroes of life and the movie well portrays what real firefighters have to go through. Great performances by Phoenix, Travolta, even Barrett and all the other supporting actors. It's one great movie and it shouldn't be missed.
My Rating: 8/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I'm a firefighter in Holland and there were really a couple of
surprises for me in the movie. If the movie is accurate, the FD in the
US is very differently organised. For one, we never enter a building
which is on fire without bringing "high pressure" water. Another thing
that amazed me, was the respiratory equipment. Ours fits tight around
the nose and mouth and you can not see the entire face of each other.
But in the movie it's like they are wearing fishtanks. :-)
A stupid mistake in the movie is when they rescue the girl which they have to reanimate. When they come out of the building, they put her on a bed and wheel her into the ambulance---> weird thing, WHERE ARE THE AMBULANCE GUYS????? The start doing the reanimation in the ambulance like it's the most normal thing in the world.
Then there's the incident where the guy falls thru the roof. What the hell were they doing on the roof???? No one was missing and even if there was, you never walk on top of a burning building.
Besides all that, it is an entertaining movie. But it's still not good enough. Is it ever? Maybe I'm being to critical.
I wish all American firefighters all the best. Cause you will need it considering the gear you use. The European outfit is so much saver! Anyway, respect and all the best for 2005.
Ladder 49 introduces us to the life of Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), a firefighter for the Baltimore City fire department. Jack is assigned to Fire Station 33 as a pipe-man for Ladder 49. (Note: The pipe-man holds the water hose nozzle and sprays water onto the fire.) As a new probationary firefighter, Jack is assigned all the little jobs at the firehouse. Station 33 Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), and the other veteran firefighters love to play jokes on the new rookies, including Jack. Captain Kennedy takes Jack under his wing to make him the best firefighter in the city. Time passes, and Jack is now a seasoned veteran on the rescue team. Ladder 49 has been called on a four-alarm fire to a burning 20-story building. Chief Mike Kennedy, his former Captain, is in command of the fire. Jack and the rescue team brave the fire to rescue anyone trapped inside. They save several people, and Jack continues to search for others. Jack finds a man and lowers him to safety, just before the floor collapses around him. Jack falls through the building into the middle of the inferno, and is rendered unconscious. When he awakens, Jack is able to radio to his men that he is alive. Now Jack is the one who needs to be rescued. Chief Kennedy coordinates the effort to save Jack. Awaiting rescue, Jack begins to relive his life with his wife and kids, and his career through flashbacks. If you like firefighter movies, you will like this one, because some of the rescue scenes are spectacular. The fire scenes capture the real dangers and unpredictability of a fire. One line in the movie states it all, 'Everyone is running out of a burning building and only the firefighters are running into the fire.' The movie shows how brave our firefighters are and why we should honor them. (Touchstone Pictures, Run time 1:55, Rated PG-13)(8/10)
Being a firefighter myself and having seen many, many firefighting movies, I would have to say this was the best. No one really knows what we go through and I am extremely happy that this movie shows what firefighters have to go through. It's an excellent movie and I hope that everyone who sees it, sees what we deal wtih everyday of our lives fighting fires and saving lives. For those who know anyone who is in the fire dept. thank them today because they are always there for you night, day, weekends, holidays. Whether they are paid or volunteers they will always be there to help. To us saving lifes is what its all about.
This is a film that definitely looks at the day to day lives of firemen as it is primarily through the eyes of Jack Morrison. The film pretty much looks at how he starts off as a rookie, how he meets his wife and how his career progresses until that fateful night. The more I watched this film, the more it reminded me of a classic "Adam-12" episode entitled "Elegy for a Pig". The only differences between that episode and the film were the fact that it was only a half an hour as opposed to two hours for this film and the fact that the only person in that episode to have a speaking role was Martin Milner as his character Pete Malloy described his and his best friend's career from the day he joined the force to the night his buddy was killed in the line of duty. The only negative that I found with this film is that it tended to slow down in certain areas, especially in the scenes involving Jack's home life with his worried wife Linda and their kids. This is a solid if not spectacular film where the action sequences take a backseat to the human drama of day to day life.
Remember the classic Oscar-winning film, "How Green Was My Valley?"
What made that film so great was the deep connections of a Welsh mining
family and the people around them.
I felt that same deep connection when I saw Ladder 49. Here we see firemen interacting not only on the job but in their personal lives as well. We share their joys and their heartbreaks.
John Travolta shines in a supporting role as the commander of the firemen. Joaquin Phoenix is very appealing as firemen Jack Morrison, whose story is the picture.
While trapped in a burning building, flashbacks are well used to show his life from the time of his joining the fire department, his meeting with his future wife, his marriage and his heroic deeds.
The stalwart ending of the perseverance of firemen, in the face of tragedy, makes this a heartily recommended film.
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