October 02, 2004

Ladder 49

Directed by Jay Russell Starring Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Firefighters often risk their own lives in order to save others, and few professions are as admirable. Unfortunately, these everyday heroes seem to inspire inconsequential films with cardboard characters, worn-out cliches and predictable plotlines (Backdraft, The Guys) that really don't tell us anything we don't already know. Ladder 49 is another one of those five-alarm catastrophes that even a fleet of fire trucks can't prevent from going down in flames.

Newly pudgy Joaquin Phoenix plays Jack Morris, a Baltimore fireman who gets himself swallowed up by debris in a burning building during a rescue mission. While his band of firefighter brothers search for him, Jack spends the remainder of the film reminiscing about the seminal moments of his career and personal life: The first time he reports to the station; the first time he plays a prank on a coworker; the first time he puts out a fire; the first time he meets his wife; the first time his wife gives birth; the first time he attends a fallen comrade's funeral. The tedious litany goes on.

The film relies heavy on flashbacks to pad its running time in a desperate attempt to disguise the fact that it scarcely has a plot. But after a while, the parade of flashbacks removes you so far from the central storyline that you just stop caring about what will happen. To compensate for its ineffectual screenplay, the film employs heavy-handed musical cues to announce whether a particular scene is goofy or tragic. The scene in which Jack rescues a teen on Christmas Eve stands out as the film's strongest, but it looks so uncharacteristically stylish that it doesn't seem to belong.

Ladder 49 leaves no conventional expectations unmet, and the Dalmatian's all that's missing from this modern-day Norman Rockwell firehouse. Screenwriter Lewis Colick patronizes the viewers by creating characters devoid of any flaws and complexity for fear that such may somehow make the firefighters less heroic. As if stereotypes can substitute for character development, the screenplay tirelessly bludgeons the viewers with arbitrary information such as the firefighters' Irish-Catholic heritage. The film makes a last-ditch attempt at relevance and a final bow to convention by sacrificing a central character, ensuring a teary-eyed eulogy. Alas, that cheap shot ending seems to suggest that those who make it out alive are somehow less noble than those who don't.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.