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Published: 10/1/2004

Movie review: Ladder 49 **

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Ladder 49 is the Black Hawk Down of civil-service pictures.

Only even more so, for better and for far worse. It'll explain:

That Ridley Scott account of a U.S. military operation in Somalia gone bad was admirably single-minded and direct; the mission was the thing and we were given just enough information about the soldiers. It was about their work, their jobs, and the way some work can put your life on the line to just do it. It also could feel as heavy-handed as a mortar shell; not to mention, it lugged around its share of action cliches. Namely, the looming Somalian warlords hidden behind Ray-Bans and perpetual sneers.

Ladder 49, from a storytelling point of view anyway, is just as direct and earnest and mercifully free of the clutter of formula. There are no bad guys, unless you consider a nine-alarm blaze to be malicious; there's not even really any conflict. There are no unnecessary subplots, like the one about a serial arsonist that weighed down a piffle like Backdraft. No one waxes poetic over the serpentlike nature of fire; we don't hear about the adrenaline rush of running into a burning building, or how rewarding it is to save lives. No attempt is made to attach some concocted rivalry about firefighting brothers squabbling over an old flame.

About 50 years ago, if they turned out earnest, adoring firefighting pictures with the same regularity as they did war pictures, they might have looked something like this. It tells the story of a firefighter who climbs through the ranks, lands a good woman, has a couple of kids, and just wants to make it home alive at the end of his shift. He doesn't think too much about the work, which, depending on how you see that, is either realistic or a backhanded compliment. There's a nice abruptness here, though. Joaquin Phoenix barges into a burning building, spots a young girl motionless, surrounded by smoke; he frets for a few seconds over how to carry her. But he does, and delivers her to an ambulance where they can't find a pulse. Then they do. A boss wanders up, tells him good work, shift's over, go home.

Very matter of fact.

Very admirable.

And so is the noble sentiment of making a movie clearly intended as a post-9/11 salute to the firefighting profession. And a profession is what connects here. Director Jay Russell comes from a firefighting family. Jacinda Barrett (the lone female lead, best known from MTV's The Real World) grew up in an Australian firefighting household. You don't even need to know any of this to somehow sense it, though: There's a grim determination to show the details of what the life is like on an average day. When these people get married, for example, they get DJs with cheesy mustaches just like everyone.

Russell had a brief documentary background that comes in handy. The fire scenes, in particular, strike me as believable, not spectacular. There are explosions, yes. And there are helicopters, yes. What you're more aware of, though, are the hundreds of big and small ways a firefighter can get hurt, or worse, disoriented. The smoke in this picture is a faint blue and it hugs everything. But you're just as likely to notice the slush in the December streets - how nobody pulls to the side of the road fast enough.

On the other hand, that determination to not exploit firefighters (and particularly 9/11), is why eventually, of course, Ladder 49 does nothing but exploit firefighting. They go down to the bar every night. But do they do this because of the pressure or do they just do this? We don't really know why they became firefighters. We expect some of them did because their fathers were firefighters, but we're just expected to understand this. We're shown that they're selfless. But they're never selfish, either. The film gives us regular guys, the details of their regular lives, but without bothering to humanize them in anything but a commercial spokesperson way.

Did I mention that Russell also directed the slatheringly sentimental My Dog Skip and Tuck Everlasting? His prevailing technique is to cue an acoustic guitar whenever the plot comes down to earth and ordinary life is being suggested. It's why there haven't been many movies about firefighters and yet we feel we're watching the 900th. My feelings are complicated. His hero isn't.

He's not even a Cocky Rookie With Something to Prove. He's Jack Morrison (Phoenix), and we see him wander in off the street and join the Baltimore Fire Department. The whole film is a flashback. It begins with Jack fighting a 20-story blaze and falling through collapsed floorboards. He radios his mentor, Capt. Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), who puts his resources into rescuing Jack. While Jack waits, the details of his decade-long career flood back to him.

Think insurance commercial.

Births, weddings, funerals.

Phoenix brings a charming mumble, but Travolta has officially become a character actor; breathing itself doesn't seem to come out of him with anything like simplicity anymore. There's nothing offensive or overtly lame about Ladder 49. Indeed, think corporate-training film, and then how reassuring it is these people don't call in sick.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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