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Overall Rating

Awesome: 28.21%
Worth A Look: 19.23%
Average: 11.54%
Pretty Bad34.62%
Total Crap: 6.41%

5 reviews, 48 user ratings

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Ladder 49
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Might as well be about accountants."
2 stars

Any movie can teach us something if we open ourselves to learning, and from 'Ladder 49' I learn that Baltimore has a thriving Irish community. Who knew? Well, maybe those who hail from Baltimore.

But from our two premier Baltimore filmmakers, Barry Levinson and John Waters, we've gotten stories focusing on Jews and freaks, respectively -- not a St. Paddy's Day pub scene anywhere in their combined filmographies. For a long while, I sat through Ladder 49 expecting it to be set somewhere obvious like Boston, except that I heard no glaringly fake Boston accents. By setting up shop in Baltimore, of all places, and playing up the Irish angle, the movie stakes a claim to uniqueness in at least one respect.

Otherwise, this is a fairly routine firefighter drama, with burning-building sequences that more or less all look alike. In Ron Howard's Backdraft (1991), the previous major firefighter movie, the fires had personality; the flames were sneaky, seductive, deadly. The fires in Ladder 49 look too neatly art-directed, as if you were watching Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, and the rest of the cast stumble around a Universal Studios theme ride. Fancy editing and clever angles do all the work; we never feel as if the characters -- or we -- are really in there among the flames, and in a movie that's supposed to be paying tribute to those who risk their lives, that's a rather large liability.

The script, by Lewis Colick, is a bit too neat, too. We follow rookie fireman Jack Morrison (Phoenix) from his first time down the fire pole (a nice POV shot that gives us false hope that the subsequent scenes will have some you-are-there excitement) to his later days as an established and respected firefighter who's saved quite a few lives, one on live TV. Because Hollywood fears we won't care about a childless bachelor, Jack is promptly set up with a cute blonde wife (Jacinda Barrett) and two darling kids (one girl, one boy). We are, thankfully, spared the scene where Jack misses an important birthday party or dance recital because he's busy dousing flames, but we do get the scene where Jack's wife frets about his safety and nudges him to take a desk job. To which an attentive viewer might say, "Lady, he had this gig when you met him, remember? It's not like he was a librarian who suddenly decided to go fight fires."

John Travolta works hard to redeem his scenes as the sloppy but caring Mike Kennedy, the captain and father figure of the firehouse. He's introduced snoozing at his desk with an unlit cigar in his paw; you sense, however, that Mike slacks off everywhere but on a fire site, where he's crisp and authoritative. As he has aged and filled out, Travolta, wiry and somewhat high-strung in his youth, has puffed into a relaxed Buddha whose presence seems to chill out everyone around him. He sells a couple of emotional speeches after a couple of the men have fallen to the flames; a few years ago the movie might have been his story, but the film is carried by Joaquin Phoenix, who might be better suited to scene-stealing supporting roles in big Hollywood movies than to lead roles. Phoenix is the sort of actor who can make villains interesting and likable despite themselves, but can't do much with a hero who seems to have been written as a cautiously dull family man and courageous fireman. And the movie's flashback structure (Jack remembers most of the movie while awaiting rescue in a gutted, fiery building) kills whatever momentum Phoenix's performance might have built up.

Ladder 49 has been all-too-consciously constructed as a salute to the men (no female firefighters in this movie -- shh, don't tell Caroline Paul) who offer their lives in the literal line of fire, not only on a daily basis but on 9/11. The movie bends over backwards to depict firemen as great guys who play hilarious pranks on each other and throw elaborate birthday parties for each other's kids. That may be, but it doesn't make for a terribly meaty film. Two other projects, the Denis Leary black-comic TV series Rescue Me and Peter Berg's still-unmade fireman-heist film Truck 44 (said to be sidelined out of "respect" after 9/11), might do a better job of showing firemen warts and all -- what's wrong with showing some greedy, loutish, disagreeable firemen who can still pull it together and save lives when necessary? That they all have to be nice guys on top of being heroes is laying it on a little thick, and is beside the point.

How about a movie that points out how the budgets of first-responder teams -- police and emergency medical teams as well as firefighters -- have been slashed under the current administration? Any of the above would honor your local fire department far more than a nicey-nice tearjerker like 'Ladder 49' does.

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originally posted: 01/03/07 08:23:59
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell good not great 4 stars
3/24/10 Firefighter005 loved the movie, but as a firefighter myself, id luv to go in a burning building w/o smoke 4 stars
1/26/09 a firefighter Not a single firefighter would go into that building...surround and drownd! 3 stars
1/09/09 Shaun Wallner Was'nt all that great! 2 stars
4/22/08 Sarah Loved it! I've seen it 100 times and it's made me cry every time! 5 stars
12/05/06 William Goss Breezes through its rampant cliches, marred by the hokiest of endings. 3 stars
9/05/06 sam its good seeing americas heroes being onscreen instead of the usual teen drama 5 stars
9/02/06 nicole for all them people who think this movie is shit well you dont no what a good movie is! 5 stars
5/25/06 Piz Lot's of potential but very formulaic and predictable. A snoozer for the most part. 2 stars
1/10/06 Michael Flat as a pancake 1 stars
9/13/05 Taylor Fladgate Painful at times to watch. Cliche ridden. Who rated this "awesome"??? 2 stars
6/17/05 Leigh as a firey, would never go into a building burning without a buddy with hose and water. 1 stars
5/18/05 mwildema its like they tried to make this suck 1 stars
5/06/05 Dan The ultimate tribute to firefighters worldwide. 5 stars
4/18/05 DM Crappy, sappy, cliched and one-dimensional 2 stars
3/31/05 James I am a firefighter in idaho and it really hit me hard and touched home with our lives. 5 stars
3/18/05 Crandall101 I loved it! 5 stars
3/16/05 Lauren it was good 3 stars
3/10/05 oOParkerOo Boring 2 stars
3/02/05 David Tsung good acting and surprisingly a pretty good soryt 4 stars
2/05/05 Amy Bradshaw Everyone needs to see this film, a wonderful tribute to firefighters. 5 stars
1/27/05 Jeff Anderson A great, spirited, & heroic film. Travolta gives a heartfelt & flat-out great performance!! 5 stars
1/08/05 Aldo This really stinks 2 stars
1/03/05 Feliciano It's the same cliché off heroism, but its an incredible and very beautiful and educative on 4 stars
11/21/04 Meg best movie I've ever seen... left me crying at the end. 5 stars
11/10/04 alicia lacount i loved it 5 stars
11/08/04 Amanda i loved it 5 stars
10/29/04 infurno I thought ladder 49 was a awsome movie, all my friends at the fire house thought so to. 5 stars
10/28/04 Chuck E Z Worth watching, visually, emotionally, and for the entertainment value. 4 stars
10/26/04 jcjs fine 5 stars
10/25/04 Alex This is Joaquin's best movie 5 stars
10/24/04 M Poor man's Bacdraft. Have you seen that movie recently? 5 stars
10/23/04 ODH This is a poor man's Backdraft, with little more than a cliche storyline 2 stars
10/18/04 D Kennedy I am a professional Fire FIghter and would give it a 9 out of 10 5 stars
10/18/04 Rob P S Heartrending 5 stars
10/15/04 Karl I thought this movie was terrific. I agree the plot was somewhat thin, but it didnt matter 5 stars
10/10/04 E. W> Sumner Better than your half-assed review says 4 stars
10/07/04 marge OKAY...listen..this movie is AwEsOmE*if anything we should give RESPECT & STOP complaining! 5 stars
10/07/04 Tiffany I thought this Movie was a great depiction of how firefighters really are. 2 thumbs up!!! 5 stars
10/07/04 ownerofdajoint good flick;especially the fire scenes.puts a firemen's job in a new light.well told 4 stars
10/04/04 Joe Smaltz Poor special effects, needed a technical director. medocre predictable plot. 2 stars
10/02/04 Kris backdraft II 1 stars
10/02/04 John Scarborough I thought this movie was rather good. It was wonderful but yet sad. I cried a bit. Must S 5 stars
10/02/04 Fuck Firemen Firefighters dont deserve any of this praise..they are a bunch of lazy self serving hacks 1 stars
10/02/04 Mark D Fulwiler thie movie doesn't honor firefighters---it deifies them--good fire effects though! 2 stars
10/01/04 Angelo Sudano Very interesting and realistic take on the life and career of a Firefighter. 5 stars
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  01-Oct-2004 (PG-13)
  DVD: 08-Mar-2005



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