1.5 out of 5Short version: This movie took an intriguing idea and ran it straight into the ground with a weak script and lousy direction. The clichés are so pervasive that it's sometimes hard to believe this movie was meant to be taken seriously. The heroic efforts of our firefighters deserve a much better showcase than this crapfest. " /> 1.5 out of 5Short version: This movie took an intriguing idea and ran it straight into the ground with a weak script and lousy direction. The clichés are so pervasive that it's sometimes hard to believe this movie was meant to be taken seriously. The heroic efforts of our firefighters deserve a much better showcase than this crapfest. " />

Review: Ladder 49

Published 10 years ago by , Updated February 9th, 2012 at 9:04 pm,

By Brian Rentschler

Short version: This movie took an intriguing idea and ran it straight into the ground with a weak script and lousy direction. The clichés are so pervasive that it’s sometimes hard to believe this movie was meant to be taken seriously. The heroic efforts of our firefighters deserve a much better showcase than this crapfest.

ladder49 Review:  Ladder 49After seeing this movie, I decided to go back and look at the filmography of Joaquin Phoenix. I wanted to pinpoint the last time I thought he played a role effectively in a movie. As it turned out, the movie was To Die For, released in 1995. Granted, I haven’t seen every movie in which he has starred since 1995, but it seems to me that his best performances are smaller roles that have top-notch directors presiding over them. As his Hollywood star grows ever bigger and his roles increase in size, I don’t find the quality of his performances growing with them. If anything, it’s the opposite. After seeing The Village last year, I thought he had hit a new low, but sadly, his performance in Ladder 49 was even worse.

Even though John Travolta is featured prominently in most of the poster and TV ads for the movie, the vast majority of it focuses on Jack Morrison (played by Joaquin Phoenix). Set in present-day Baltimore, Maryland, the movie starts out with Jack trying to rescue a victim from a burning building, when the floor collapses under him and he falls into the building. The rest of the movie consists of flashbacks of Jack’s life throughout the past 10 years, interspersed with some scenes in the present time where Jack’s colleagues are trying to find him and get him out of the building. At first, I liked the idea of doing flashbacks because it could help the audience really learn who the characters are. The problem is that director Jay Russell does a lousy job of tying those scenes into the overall story. It seemed like most of the flashback scenes were meant to emphasize the bond between the firefighters rather than develop characters, but even those scenes weren’t done very well. How many scenes do we need to see with the firefighters getting drunk in a pub or playing pranks on each other? Okay, they’re bestest buddy pals; we get it. It’s hard to believe this movie was written by Lewis Colick, the same guy who wrote the screenplay for the excellent October Sky.

Ironically, one of the biggest clichés in the movie is how Jack meets his soulmate, Linda (played by Jacinda Barrett). He and his best friend/coworker Dennis (played by Billy Burke) meet Linda and a friend of hers in a grocery store. Okay, quick show of hands. How many people met their significant other in a grocery store? Oh, not so unusual? Well, what if I told you that Jack and Dennis lied to Linda and her friend about their ranks in the fire department? Call me crazy, but if I were trying to meet a complete stranger in a grocery store and she caught me in even a small lie, I would think a restraining order would be more realistic than a romantic dinner. But in the very next scene, Jack and Linda are having a romantic dinner. Before you can say “bad movie cliché,” Jack and Linda are married. A little while later, the boys are in a pub, and Linda is with them. Despite the fact that she regularly drinks, she refuses a beer that’s offered to her. Wanna guess why? And one of the most groan-inducing moments is when all the guys sing along to the Ohio Players song “Fire.” I guess when you’re a firefighter, anything that doesn’t somehow involve fire — even in your personal life — is verboten.

When Jack first starts out at the fire station, he’s a wide-eyed, aw-shucks kid who looks exactly the same as he does in the beginning of the movie, even though he’s supposedly 10 years younger in that scene. Obviously, everyone is obliged to treat him like an outsider and give him a hard time as the mandatory initiation into their self-imposed fraternity. When Jack first meets Captain Mike Kennedy (played by John Travolta), the captain is half-asleep and he is not wearing his pants. (I’m pretty sure that would violate some sort of fire department policy in real life.) Naturally, Jack “passes” the initiation and becomes one of the guys, but despite all the camaraderie, you need at least one jerk among the sweetie-pies for sake of variation. That sad task falls upon Robert Patrick, who plays Lenny. (What happened to his career anyway?) Despite a few roadblocks in the relationship, do Lenny and Jack end up at least respecting each other? You get three guesses.

Oh, but life isn’t all champagne and soda crackers for Jack. His life can be really tough. His wife has a hard time dealing with the fact that he has such a risky job. Several of his coworkers are injured or killed over the years, forcing him to wonder if he should be doing something a little less risky. After the flashback sequences are mercifully over and the movie concentrates more on the present-day dilemma of Jack having fallen through the floor, things start to get a little more interesting. The problem is that there are only two possible outcomes: Either Jack is alive at the end of the movie, or he’s not. I won’t reveal which one it is, but I will say that the ending feels like it was stamped with a cookie cutter. As with the rest of the movie, there is nothing original or even mildly groundbreaking about the ending.

Overall, Ladder 49 is a disjointed mess, and it’s hard to figure out what point it’s trying to make. Is it trying to say that firefighters are heroes? Absolutely, but we already knew that. It needs to say something more, but it doesn’t. Given my tepid reaction to the trailer, I wasn’t expecting it to be the Citizen Kane of firefighter movies, but I wasn’t expecting it to be this bad either. I have great respect for our firefighters; they deserve a high-quality movie that allows audiences to see and feel the reality of the heroic work they do. Ladder 49 is not that movie.

Our Rating:

1.5 out of 5
(Poor, A Few Good Parts)

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  1. Can’t really say I had any desire to see the movie from the trailers. I also agree with your overall assessment of Phoenix. I liked him in “Gladiator” because he played the slimey, slacker role so well.

    When I saw him at the Oscars it seemed like he didn’t have to get much out of character to play the role… :confused:


  2. I liked Gladiator overall, but Phoenix’s character seemed too over-the-top for my taste. (Obviously, the Oscar folks disagreed with me because he got a nomination.) Even the worst villains should have some redeeming qualities to them, but his character in Gladiator was just a lazy slimeball to the core. I’m sure part of that was because of the direction and script, but his role in To Die For was more believable and a better character study, IMHO.


  3. I must have been a real sissy when I was a member of a fire brigade because if we were inside a burning building we ALWAYS had a hose throwing water on to flames. Ummm, didn’t this occur to those sent in to save their fellow fire fighter? The Movie was a joke. 1 star out of 5

  4. You may have been a member of the fire brigade, but seriously, you seem to have last touch with the fire service. As a present-day firefighter, I can tell you that “truckies” (search and rescue) firefighters are seperate from engine operations. They are there to rescue occupants during a quick search. Any firefighting operations (extinguishment) would cause searing steam and would endanger the lives of any survivors.

    This movie was absolutely great! Before making suppositions about normal behavior in fire stations and other factors, perhaps you could do some actual research, like the movie-makers did. And really, is a little levity (all of the situations you criticize) so bad in a movie?

    You seem to be looking for an action only movie while this one is an action-drama. It was gratifying to see how fully Jay Russell was willing to develop his characters.

    btw, what is so cookie cutter about… [Spoiler material removed. Ed.] …(what is it with critics?)
    5 stars

  5. Im currently a firefighter, and i thought that the movie was great. It showed the brotherhood of firefighters working together. Someone said that when they were with the fire brigade the were always putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. That is the engine companies job, which the movie clearly showed. The truck company does a search to make sure no one is in the building so that when the engine company starts fighting the fire no one is killed by the steam. The movie wasnt made to scare the crap out of people, or to be really funny and full of action. it was made to show what firefighters go through, and it did an excellent job in doing that. and when the firefighters were singing the song “fire” they were just having a good time. whats wrong with that??

  6. I think the movie is great because it honors the brave firefighters and can also be seen as a tribute for those who were working at 9/11. I think the film is very touching but not unrealistic. Sure, some things are a bit exaggerated but there are many other hollywood movies where they exaggerate a good deal more. And about Joaquin Phoenix: He’s one of the best actors of his generation, as kate winslet said once. He worked as a firefighter before making this movie to make it more realistic and learned to play the gituar and even to sing for the walk the line movie and i don’t know any actor who makes so much effort for the movies he plays in. so i think you shouldn’t judge someone if you don’t know anything about him.

  7. Well that’s one opinion. Personally, Google follows you around too much after you’ve used it, even if you click thru from a meta site like Dogpile.. It’s been known to act obtuse when their’s a chance to promote one of it’s advertisers. You could type words like “hope” into it and have E-Bay come up on the first page. It’s less likely today because this example has been pointed out to them, but it still isn’t as effective an engine as it use to be..

  8. @the old man

    That was a total spam comment that snuch through and I’ve deleted it.