Brave men and women who risk their lives to rescue others from deadly fires certainly deserve recognition and appreciation. They also deserve a better cinematic tribute than Ladder 49, a well-meaning but disappointing movie about why people become firefighters. It’s only when the film’s realistic scenes of buildings on fire roar across the screen that the movie comes to life. Even reliable actors like John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix seem boxed-in by a script lacking in creativity or originality.
Phoenix (The Village) plays an “everyman” firefighter who falls through a floor and becomes trapped during a vicious blaze. As his buddies try to save him, flashbacks tell Phoenix’s story from the day he enters the firehouse as a rookie until his latest dangerous predicament. Sequences show him being hazed as a newbie, bonding with the rest of the crew, falling in love, getting married, becoming a father and saving lives. Like most firefighters, Phoenix’s character must deal with the fears of his family about their loved one’s safety, but he decides to remain on the front lines -- even when offered a less dangerous job by his sympathetic captain, portrayed by Travolta (A Love Song for Bobby Long).
In “The Making of Ladder 49” DVD bonus featurette, we learn real fires were filmed instead of using digital special effects, which explains why those scenes come across with such an emotional and visual impact. Phoenix and Travolta, who attended a 2-week firefighting training session to help them get into their roles, express awe about how real everything seemed to them while filming these daring sequences. Adding to the realism of one scene, Phoenix (a man afraid of heights!) actually dangled on a rope down the side of a 15-story building. And Travolta got so close to one of the fires, he burned his hand.
Another DVD featurette, “Everyday Heroes,” includes real stories from real firefighters, and it’s interesting to see how many of them chose their job because it runs in the family. The remaining bonus materials are: “Shine Your Light,” a music video performed by Robbie Robertson; audio commentary from director Jay Russell and editor Bud Smith; and deleted scenes.
After the horrible tragedy of 9/11, Americans became more aware of how important our nation’s firefighters are in this age of terror attacks. Although lacking the drama and mystery of Ron Howard’s 1991 Backdraft, Ladder 49 gives us another look at heroes who rush into a fire while others are running from it.
(Released by Touchstone Home Entertainment and rated “PG-13” for intense fire and rescue situations and language. Bonus features unrated.)