Ladder 49 (PG)

“Ladder 49” stretches out in search of reason and purpose; it extends shooting for comedy, it distends further towards drama, and elongates seeking the penthouse of superlative action, but in the end it lands squarely in the bargain basement.

This is a film that clearly over-extends its limited reach. I guess you could say that “Ladder 49” comes up short.

A bulked-up Joaquin Phoenix headlines this contrived story about a young firefighter who, while trapped inside a burning building, reflects back on his life and career choices. Erstwhile his buddies, including John Travolta, desperately try to save him. Along the way his friends come (Robert Patrick and Balthazar Getty) and go (Morris Chestnut and Billy Burke). I don’t mind revealing anything about the so-called plot because; a.) You shouldn’t waste your money on this film and b.) If you do, you’ll see it all coming a mile away.

Even Phoenix can’t carry this film, though he gives it the old college try. His work is solid throughout and Jacinda Barrett occasionally moves us as the love of his life. Otherwise all the characters in this story are severely underdeveloped. When a friend dies we’re not really sure why they were such great friends and when Phoenix portrays his conflicted role as firefighter and father, we’re not very sure he’s ever been a good father. Not because his presentation is lacking but because his boy only appears with him in two scenes. Travolta is supposedly the mentor here, but we never see him pass along much of anything to his supposed protégé except for showing him how to squirt a hose, lower a flag to half-mast, and to eventually make him a job offer he apparently refuses, but we’re still not too clear on the latter point, either. Travolta is just as campy as he was in “Face Off” and “Swordfish” and that’s yet another terrible thing.

Worst of all, Ladder 49 leaves one feeling violated because the story is just downright emotionally manipulative. It is structured thusly: one funny scene, one action scene, one drama scene; one scene that is amusing, one scene that has something semi-relevant happen, and one scene that plays on our emotions, and on and on it goes; vain humor, followed by sub-par action, trailed by a sappy scene laden by soap opera quality dialogue. By the end credits I did not feel like I’d been on an emotional roller coaster. Rather, I felt somebody had just spent two hours trying to exploit my emotional sensibilities.

The comedic elements in “Ladder 49” are artificial, the drama so redundant and overbearing it winds up being wholly melodramatic, and its action isn’t even in the same ballpark as Backdraft. In truth, “Ladder 49” isn’t 1/49th the flick “Backdraft” was; it is at least 48 rungs short of measuring up to Ron Howard’s tribute to the profession, which offered genuine laughs, fully developed characters, real drama, a little mystery (even if it was somewhat predictable), and superior action sequences. The latter is truly a shame when you consider that “Backdraft” is almost 15 years old, predating even the most rudimentary CGI capabilities. How could a movie made in this digital age fail to surpass the effects done in a film so long ago?

In spite of my personal disdain for this film I did notice an entire row of middle-aged ladies bawling their eyes out a few rows in front of me. No doubt some will find the psychological coercion of this film somewhat gratifying. I’m just not so easily manipulated and therefore I’ll give it my CATV rating. Don’t waste a dime on it. Wait until you can see it for free. Go rent “Backdraft” instead. Even with a Baldwin in the lead, it is still a better ride than “Ladder 49.”

From a Christian Perspective:

“Ladder 49” is a hard PG-13. Realism dictates that the producers of this film should have made an R-rated film. (Note: “Backdraft”) The dramatic fire sequences are toned down, not to mention the firehouse banter, just so your teenager might be able to get in to see this film without your express permission. One really good point about this movie-the story has a strong emphasis on the value of family, which is somewhat refreshing. There’s a whole lot of drinking in this film, quite a few obscenities, and several instances of adult humor. Heed the age appropriateness of the rating on this one as concerns your children.