There’s little doubt about it: firefighting redefines the word “hero,” particularly in a post-September 11th world. What more noble aspiration can one human have than to risk their life in an attempt to save that of another? And there is something eminently tragic about the immutable killer itself; on average, a person dies in a fire-related incident every three hours in the US alone, the tortures of suffocation and heat elevating the pathos of their demise to the evening news, and yes… even Hollywood pictures. A pity, then, that the complex realities of life in a firehouse have been so generically brought to life in “Ladder 49.” This is filmmaking of least resistance, lifeless albeit non-stereotypical characters brought to the screen via clichés and some of the worst dialogue in recent history.
It’s a shame, too, given the film’s breeding. Joaquin Phoenix plays rookie firefighter Jack Morrison, who is caught between a heroic desire to save lives and his family’s need for a father and husband who does not put his life at risk each day at the office. Guiding and training Jack along the way is chief Mike Kennedy, played with panache by John Travolta. The relationship between the two bridges, as the movie suggests often does, the pecking order of a firehouse and the brotherhood of those who work there.
Travolta… well, frankly, the man looks better in a uniform than just about any other working actor in Hollywood. He’s ascended to a nearly religious stature in the Hollywood engine, and his presence in this film no doubt is the primary reason it will most likely turn in decent, if unremarkable, grosses. Phoenix, who appears to have gained twenty pounds and lost twenty IQ points in order to evoke an “everyman” appearance in the pivotal role, delivers an understated, admirable performance.
Regrettably, the film’s dialogue is pedestrian (my favorite, from reality-TV fox to motion picture co-star Jacinda Barrett, is this uber-obvious gem, put forth with remarkable amazement: “You run into burning buildings when everyone else is running out”), and the emotional subtext of the central plot – will Jack make it out of a burning building alive – drifts wildly from the anchor of emotional believability with each passing scene. Far from providing more than a cursory glance at the complex, minute decisions that individually split the difference between life and death and collectively define the character of an unassuming hero, we get the obvious cues: a scene in which our firefighters rescue a black girl, beer blasts at the local pub, well-intentioned hazing of house newbies (which skates perilously close to the edge of homophobia in one instance), and a conclusion to the film cut sheepishly from the music television genre.
Bluntly speaking, there’s nothing new or terribly interesting here. “Ladder 49” is a Hollywood stereotype attached to September 11th as if it were a reality TV show with a single goal: evoke empathy for firefighters. They deserve our respect, not our pity; and although the film will find its audience like water soaking the parched earth – because in a time of political and spiritual fragmentation, heroes help put our society and our morality back into sync – the firefighter’s job is not better for it. It sounds altruistic… but “Ladder 49” merely exploits the veneer of honor and sacrifice for something a little less pretty: the ten bucks in your pocket.