Anybody who’s nostalgic for the kinds of movies John Ford and Howard Hawks often used to make–the ones about groups of men engaged in dangerous jobs (cavalry soldiers, lawmen in Wild West towns, modern military men), engaging alternately in horseplay and heroics, with intermittent tragedies–are directed to “Ladder 49.” Jay Russell’s film is about the camaraderie of the crew of a Baltimore firehouse, centering on Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), a rookie who gains a mentor in Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta); it’s structured as a series of flashbacks that relates their history during a crisis, as Kennedy works to rescue the young man from a blazing building in which he’s trapped. But although this is a contemporary story, one clearly inspired by the events of 9/11, it’s extraordinarily old-fashioned in tone and content; if you ignore the modern settings, you’d swear it could have been made in 1940. It seems dated even before it’s over.
Much of what happens in “Ladder 49” comes from the oldest of Hollywood playbooks. Jack arrives from the academy as the greenest of recruits, and after a hazing ritual in which the squad’s cynical, hardened veteran Lenny Richter (Robert Patrick) takes the lead role, he gradually learns the ropes, bonding especially with Ray and Dennis Gauquin (Balthazar Getty and Billy Burke) and Tommy Drake (Morris Chestnut); Tony Corrigan (Tim Guinee) and Don Washington (Kevin Daniels) round out the crew, which Captain Kennedy leads with a combination of sternness and understanding. Jack’s initial uncertainty and unease are gradually honed into a smooth professionalism, though he remains the same average Joe in his personal life–a quality that’s apparent when he meets a gal named Linda (Jacinda Barrett) while out grocery shopping, and before long marries her. The picture settles into a predictable rhythm of alternating fire calls and domestic episodes, with men of the squad periodically being lost or seriously injured in the former and Linda and the inevitable Morrison kids showing concern over Jack’s demanding schedule and the danger he continually faces in the latter. Tying it all together are the themes of Jack’s developing heroism (exhibited in several well-staged action sequences) and his growing closeness with the divorced Kennedy, who becomes a surrogate uncle to the Morrison clan. Both are joined in the linking story of Mike’s calm but impassioned effort to direct his men in finding and breaking through to Jack as the younger man tries to find his way out of the structure in which he’s been trapped after rescuing a worker caught in the blaze.
“Ladder 49” works as well as it does because of the slickness and efficiency of the production, which Russell has mounted with considerable skill, and the strength of his cast. The picture’s look is top-drawer, with a fine production design courtesy of Tony Burrough and expert cinematography by James L. Carter. Particular praise has to go to the visual effects team headed by Larry Fioritto, Peter Donen and Henric Nieminen, who, along with stunt coordinator George Aguilar, have contrived some of the most realistic fire sequences ever committed to film. Phoenix stands out among the actors; looking beefier than usual and acting the common man far more than usual, he easily wins sympathy without descending into mere puppy-dog exaggeration, and Barrett matches him with a performance both likable and strong. Among the supporting cast, Patrick shows the proper gruffness, while Burke and Washington are most effective as younger members of the squad. Travolta, by contrast, carries himself well as Kennedy, but the role doesn’t offer him much opportunity to do anything but appear determined and, on occasion, either angered by friction within his team or saddened by the loss of a colleague. Unfortunately, the solid virtues of the picture are too often smothered by the heart-on-sleeve melodramatics of the storytelling, which seems intent on leaving no cliche unused and pounding each of them home.
As a general tribute to the courage of firefighters, “Ladder 49” will certainly strike a chord with many viewers. But the picture’s penchant for overstatement leaves a distinctly saccharine taste. One can appreciate the good intentions and solid craftsmanship behind the movie, but it would have been nice had it also been executed with some subtlety and narrative finesse. Complexity, after all, isn’t the enemy of dramatic effectiveness; it’s the key to it. Though the picture strives to be a sort of testimonial to the bravery of firefighters everywhere, its old-fashioned simple-mindedness makes it impossible for this “Ladder” to reach so exalted a level.