ninth symphony films - movie reviews

LADDER 49 (2004)

DIRECTOR  -  jay russell

RATED  -  pg-13

GENRE  -  drama

LENGTH  -  105 minutes

RELEASED  -  1 october 2004

DISTRIBUTOR  -  touchstone pictures

OFFICIAL SITE  -  ladder 49

ladder 49 - a shot from the film


buy the dvd from ladder 49 at

buy the dvd from ladder 49 at

trapped in a fire that looks likely to kill him, a fireman takes the opportunity to look back over his life, career and marriage, while he waits for his company, ladder 49, to rescue him.

martin o'malley, who plays the mayor, is the real mayor of baltimore.


picture from ladder 49

picture from ladder 49

picture from ladder 49

picture from ladder 49


two out of four possible stars

Ladder 49 exists as a film that sometimes verges into melodrama, but that is usually effective as an emotionally driven piece of drama. The act of fighting fire is not really the focus of this film, despite the large number of scenes that occur in fire covered houses. The direction of this film instead straddles the border between familial obligation and love and duty to one's passion. Is family or one's job the more important factor in life? The film's entire existence is wrapped around this very basic concept.

There is no mystery to this film and neither is there any real surprise at its plot. Ladder 49 might be considered a success in the eyes of viewers who able to appreciate filmmaking on a purely emotionally manipulating level. The simple drama that exists between these rather normal people who are involved in extraordinary dealings in everyday life is how this film will affect the viewer. It's not the intense blazes or giant explosions that populate many of the scenes that will keep the audience interested.

But the difficulty exists for the filmmakers here that this purely dramatic bent might not satisfy all members of the audience who wish for an element of mystery concerning the plot or a plot with more levels. This is a film whose creators have relied almost completely on the theatrical abilities of its actors, only marginally allowing some of the focus to rest on the visuals or plot. Lead actors Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta both very much have the dramatic card to play and each take their character easily into the territory of the empathetic.

Without much effort, zero effort really, a viewer can figure out what's going to happen by the closing credits by the first ten minutes or so into the film. But given the tightly wrapped story (it might be simple, but it is still well-constructed), the lack of imagination concerning plot really shouldn't be your focus when viewing this film. It is much more the ability of Travolta and Phoenix in their respective roles that carries the interest of the viewer. Their relationship as mentor and student is a beautiful one and they portray it with grace and elegance in quiet scenes of dialogue.

Of course, the dialogue itself isn't particularly inspiring. The words uttered in this film aren't such that they'll catch you by surprise, but the solid performances just might. Having appeared in more than his fair share of great films, Joaquin Phoenix has also been the recipient of quite a few intriguing characters. His performance and character in Ladder 49, however, isn't so out of the ordinary as some of his other features. Phoenix's "Jack Morrison" is a much more normal and grounded personality than roles he's had in such films as this year's The Village and 2000's Quills. With his performance in this film, Phoenix proves he has mettle in both the bizarre and mainstream.

John Travolta, likewise known for his eclectic choices in movie roles, plays a very grounded, emotional character with "Captain Mike Kennedy," and the usually underrated actor should find favor with most audiences with his affecting performance. Co-stars Robert Patrick (playing Phoenix's best friend and fire-fighting buddy) and Jacinda Barrett (playing Phoenix's wife), both add flavor to the film, and in his unfortunately small role, Morris Chestnut gives the audiences glimpses of a very interesting character, whose story could have been expanded into more screen time. Ancillary performances from Balthazar Getty and Jay Hernandez (each actor, playing a firefighter, could have used a few more minutes on screen) fill out the cast roster well.

What keeps this movie from being truly great is the lack of additional audience fodder beyond those climactic performances. Despite being populated with affecting characters, the dramatic weight of the film just isn't expansive enough to completely fill the void left by other elements (such as plot) that could have been wrapped around a few additional corners. This is troubling, given the fine performances throughout the film. A few plot twists could have really shaken the film up and taken some heat and pressure off the actors.

This movie can exist sufficiently as a fluidly moving drama stacked with strong performances, but some viewers will be wishing for more dramatics beyond the dialogue of the film. The special effects are very smooth as well and beautifully crafted and they probably deserve a review of several lines. We've seen fire in films before, so covering the subject isn't something completely new to audiences (Backdraft seems to have cornered the market on the liquid spread of fire), but it's still handled with excellence in this film, as is to be expected in a major Hollywood motion picture such as Ladder 49.

Review by Kelsey Wyatt.

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