Firefighters are heroes. And if anyone had forgotten this, the massive post-9/11 pop-cult love has made the point repeatedly. Esteemed in Third Watch, complicated in Rescue Me, exploited by the Bush Campaign, and sold as action figures, firefighters embody all that is good and valiant and admirable. Now comes Ladder 49, Jay Russell’s overwrought paean to the noble camaraderie of this remarkable breed of men (and they are all men here). From frame one, the film focuses on the ways they support and look after one another, their shared values and (for the most part) backgrounds, and their altogether remarkable capacity to focus when necessary.
Well-intentioned though it surely is, Ladder 49 is also undermined by a pile-on of clichés, from pretentious soundtrack to predictable plot events to sentimental characterizations. Structured as a series of flashbacks occasioned by an accident on the job, the film traces the career of young Jack (Joaquin Phoenix), as he lies damaged and endangered in a burning building. His arrival at the firehouse (“The busiest and most disciplined company in the city,” that is, Baltimore) includes the usual razzing, filtered through the usual fact that “most of the guys” are Catholic.
Startled by what looks like slackness of Chief Kennedy (John Travolta, lumbering through yet another role without much commitment), Jack is soothed by the good humor exhibited by the rest of the crew, including a couple of piquant veterans: Irish guy Lenny (Robert Patrick) and black guy Tommy (Morris Chestnut). It’s not long before, a couple of flashbacks later, he’s running through the same initiation routine with the next newbie, Keith (Jay Hernandez). These guys, such a bunch of kidders.
Painfully earnest, Jack says he’s joined up to save lives, a desire he proclaims with naïve, commendable gusto. When at last he’s ready to “break his cherry,” again the guys fortify his sense of self, applauding the very gravity that makes him simultaneously laudable and dull (this may have something to do with Phoenix’s typically low-key affect, as he has precious little energy to bounce off here). In an apparent effort to lighten him up, the film delivers Jack a girlfriend, Linda (Jacinda Barrett), a lovely young jewelry designer whom he picks up in a supermarket and impresses with — you guessed it — his earnestness.
As their relationship pokes along perfunctorily from courtship to marriage to raising children to arguing over his risky job, Linda’s function might have been to grant Jack a life outside of work. But, given that the film persistently underlines the inextricability of firehouse and family, she’s really only the standard “feminine” force — sometimes supportive, sexy, and game (as when she beats one of Jack’s comrades in a drinking contest), sometimes “civilizing” in that venerable John Ford Western-ish way (reminding him of his responsibilities to his children, not only to the rest of the population in need of rescue), and sometimes just frustrating, as when she pouts, not appreciating the rituals of male bonding as Jack does.
As he lies vulnerable and remarkably reflective in the burning building, Jack anchors the flashbacks, so his story — noble and bold, corny and overwrought — becomes more representative than individual. Again and again, the film cuts back to Jack, unable to get himself out of that burning building, while the guys outside work furiously to check floor plans and knock through walls, unable to determine quite where he is, only that the floor beneath him has collapsed and so, he’s dropped several stories. Then, some crisis arises, Jack wakes and sputters amid the rubble, and he remembers a series of predictably significant occasions: his wedding day (when his buddies get drunk and sing “Fire”), a fire, his discovery that Linda is pregnant (at an Irish bar, again with the guys), a fire, his daughter’s birthday, a fire. By the time Jack’s cute, courageous young son is worrying that daddy might “get hurt” like his friend, who’s just had half his face boiled off by a steam-blast (in another fire), the pattern is more than clear: each domestic event is followed by a dramatic, costly fire, suggesting that (nearly) every call leads to someone’s death or disfigurement.
While this structure underlines the danger of the job and also supports the film’s most obvious theme — that work, mission, and family are intertwined for these firefighters — it also becomes repetitive and melodramatic. As reality, it is thrilling and frightening; as a movie, it’s conventional. Sentimental and surprisingly uncomplicated, especially given the well-known difficulties of this particular career, Ladder 49 seems a disservice to the very folks it wants to extol.