The realities of life for firefighters–from working long hours, to diving into harsh environments to put out blazes and ultimately save lives–has garnered new, and possibly more, attention since 9/11. At least it seems that way, although not as many films (“”The Guys”” comes to mind) have taken the mantle of covering this topic. One new flick that does is “”Ladder 49″”, which was mostly filmed in Baltimore, MD.
First off, covering the story in this movie doesn’t serve much of a purpose, as there really isn’t one. Rather, much of the events that transpire are in a flashback from the protagonist, Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), as he lies trapped in a burning building after just performing a rescue. The floor gives way, and he falls 12 floors, leaving him barely able to move and to wait for his fellow firefighters to come to his aid, so he reminisces…Jack’s story starts with his first day at the fire house, where he is to be on rookie, or probation, status (or ‘probies’ as they’re called). He meets the, er, pantsless Capt.–Mike Kennedy (John Travolta)–and has a prank played on him by the other guys there, lead by Lenny Richter (Robert Patrick). Initially, Jack is a member of the Engine Co. (number 33), whose job is hose down, and eliminate the flames, as opposed to the Truck, or Ladder Company (no. 49), which performs the search and rescue missions. Morrison seems to be special, maybe because he’s the main character in the film, but anyway the Capt. and others take a special interest in him. Other firefighters who are (briefly) introduced include brothers Dennis (Billy Burke) and Ray Gauquin (Balthazar Getty), and Ladder Co. member Tommy Drake (Morris Chestnut). After getting acquainted with the aspects of firefighting, Jack meets a female–Linda (Jacinda Barrett–formerly of MTV’s “”Real World London””)–in a supermarket, with whom he subsequently falls in love, marries, has kids with, etc.The real highlight here is the fires, and the exhilarating thrill that is created of having to deal with an emergency, saving lives and that whole bit. The main fire–the one mentioned above where Jack falls 12 floors–looks visually impressive, and is especially recommended for theaters with good sound. The other, similar, sequences, look good on the big screen, including one set in a burning building on Christmas–which also hammers home the point that even on X-mas, firefighters work.As Jack gains more experience, he decides to join the Truck Co., despite the objections of his now-wife Linda, who is concerned about the added risks of this new position. He, on the other hand, looks to the ultimate fulfillment of saving lives, the chance to make a difference (it also helps that he doesn’t suffer from vertigo, either).[pagebreak]The other positive with this film, are the series of entertaining moments that show how Jack and his co-workers pass the time—whether it’s playing pranks on rookies, hanging out at Looney’s Pub (especially fun is when Jack introduces Linda to his buddies for the first time), and the baby “”shower””. “”Ladder 49″” also does underscore the risks of its characters’ job choices, with problems arising at any moment—and not just at work, but at home too.The downside of the movie, is, well, that there isn’t much of a story. There are lots of interesting segments, broken by the periodic return to the present to check on Jack’s situation, but no single story/plot. The viewer doesn’t get a chance to know the characters all that well, making it less meaningful when someone dies mid-way through, or another gets injured later on.On this note, little is revealed about Jack’s family–sure there is Linda, and later the kids–but aside from one line, he mentions little about his family, much less his life before joining the BCFD. Capt. Kennedy shows his photos of his father and grandfather (also firefighters), but little is mentioned about his background as well—save for an ex-wife. It’s nice that there is such camaraderie at the station, but the guys must have families outside there place of work (especially when we see Jack get married, and then scenes of his home life—and what a nice home he winds up having, water view and all).The thing to enjoy then, if seeing this flick, is all the entertaining moments, whether the scenes of battling blazes, or the bonding that goes on off-duty (especially at Looney’s). In addition, the movie does demonstrate the risks of the profession it covers.Otherwise, anyone looking for something more complex will not find it here. There is not much here acting wise–Phoenix does well as he always does, though Travolta is still hard to see as a fire captain–but then his not ‘seen’ too much actually (speaking of being seen, look for Baltimore’s real-life Mayor O’Malley to make a cameo).Then, for entertainment, and taking a glance at the firefighters on the job, and for providing a look at local landmarks, “”Ladder 49″” delivers, but for something more substantial…eh, visit the local fire house.Grade: B-EM Reviewby Andrew Haas10/01/04