FILM REVIEW RATING: JUST ABOUT AVERAGE...
Whenever you see a fire truck blazing down the road with its lights flickering and its sirens singing, you should move out of the way and give the men (and women) in that big red behemoth the "thumbs up" sign. They are on their way to save a person or a building ...and let’s hope it’s not someone or someplace you know. They will enter a burning building as everyone else flees it. This is the message those that made LADDER 49 want you to come away with after watching the movie. And it’s a good message. Firemen deserve our respect ...especially after so many were lost during the 9/11 attacks. They are brave, strong, dedicated, pranksterish, and heroic...
But that’s only part of the story. And it’s only part of what is covered in this myopic film.
Joaquin Phoenix (WALK THE LINE, 2005) stars as Jack Morrison, an injured veteran firefighter trapped inside a burning inferno who flashes back on his life in the fire service. We are re-introduced to him as he arrives for his first day of work on ladder truck 49. He meets his Captain, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta, GET SHORTY, 1995) and the rest of his new extended family as they play jokes on him and generally induct him into their midst using every prank one could think of (finding a live goose in his locker was nice one).
As the movie progresses, we watch some of Jack’s fellow firefighters die or get injured as Jack climbs the "ladder" of rank and prestige within this close-knit brotherhood. We also see him get married, have kids, move from the ladder truck to search-and-rescue, and receive medals for saving lives. And then we get to watch him suffer a terrible fall which leads us back to his life’s flashbacks.
Having worked with firemen for many, many years, I can tell you that much of what was shown in LADDER 49 is true. But, like I said earlier, there is much more to firemen than simple heroics and the golden light of prestige. Firemen have one of the highest divorce rates among any profession (Policemen being #1). They also often battle alcoholism (something that is only touched on in this film).
Their academies train them well, so a Captain would NEVER go in with a rookie on his first fire. EVER! That was pretty ridiculous.
This film is good for what it is: an obvious praise for firemen. And if that’s what you want to see, this’ll be a great film to watch. But there are better, more relevant firemen related screen versions out there. Most notably is the new RESCUE ME on cable starring Dennis Leary. This new series is not afraid to show the good and bad psychological aspects many firefighters find themselves in. And Ron Howard’s BACKDRAFT is a pretty even take on them as well.