Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) is a heroic fire fighter from the Baltimore Fire Department, trapped in a flaming warehouse after putting his life at risk to rescue a civilian. As he waits for help among the collapsing debris, his mind flashes back to the very first day when he joined the fire team headed by Fire Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), who became his mentor and best friend. He recalls the camaraderie, the pranks and the sorrows he shared with his fellow firefighters including Tommy Drake (Morris Chestnut). He also relives the moment he met Linda (Jacinda Barrett), who becomes his wife and mother to his children.
Review by Louise Keller:
A story about the heroes who fight fires and save lives, Ladder 49 is a big budget Hollywood drama that sets out to pay tribute to the selfless men who conquer their fears and the flames. In particular, this is a story about the firemen of Baltimore's Ladder 49, who live to serve and put themselves at risk to save others. The film takes us into the roaring flames, the suffocating smoke and the precarious situation of ultimate hazard as part of their every day existence. Through the eyes of exemplary fireman Joaquin Phoenix's Jack Morrison, we get an insight into the implications of such a commitment.
Phoenix gives a superb multi-layered performance, and its credit to him that the film elicits such emotional response. From young rookie to responsible husband and father, Phoenix brings depth and accountability to Jack. The film takes us straight into the inferno of a ferocious blaze in a multi-storey building in the centre of Baltimore. 'Why does it always have to be the 12th floor, and not the 4th?' one fireman murmurs to another as they race up the fire escape in search of survivors. As the floor he is standing on collapses, Jack lies trapped, his mind wanders to past events that have lead him to this moment.
We get to know Jack first and foremost as a man. We meet him on his first day on the job, when his initiation comprises a string of practical jokes similar to what every rookie is subjected to. After he quenches the flames on his first fire, flames of another kind are ignited as he meets his future wife Linda (Jacinda Barrett) over the frozen food section at the supermarket. We are there for the happy moments and the tragedies: his wedding, the birth of his first child, and the tragedy when a close friend is killed on the job. Although top-billed, John Travolta's role as Jack's superior and friend is a supporting one, but Travolta's presence brings weight.
Life revolves around the emergency bell, when the men dress on the run, slide down the pole and rush into the wailing red fire engine. They overcome their own fears as they save lives, while every day, their families live with the danger and possibility of something going wrong.
Ladder 49 is a well made film and the fire sequences are powerful and often disturbing. It is an apt tribute to the brave men who fight fires, although it may not satisfy completely as entertainment.
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LADDER 49 (M)
CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke, Balthazar Getty
PRODUCER: Casey Silver
DIRECTOR: Jay Russell
SCRIPT: Lewis Colick
CINEMATOGRAPHER: James L. Carter
EDITOR: Bud S. Smith, M. Scott Smith
MUSIC: William Ross
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Tony Burrough
RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: BVI
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 6, 2004
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: BVHE
VIDEO RELEASE: May 25, 2005