Touchstone Pictures // 2004 // 115 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // March 28th, 2005
A bond forged by fire is never broken.
In the wake of 9/11, it seemed that America was looking up to new heroes. Instead of baseball players and rock stars, citizens started realizing that the true heroes are the unsung men and women who protect our country and its people from harm: policemen, soldiers, paramedics, and firefighters. In 2004, viewers were given a rare glimpse at the lives of brave firefighters in the action-drama Ladder 49, starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix. Though the film wasn't a blockbuster success upon its theatrical release, those interested in a second chance at turning up the heat can catch Ladder 49 on DVD, care of Buena Vista Home Entertainment.
Ladder 49 follows newbie firefighter Jack Morrison's (Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator, Signs) emotional and physical climb through the firefighting ranks. When Jack arrives and is assigned by the fire chief, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta, Pulp Fiction), to the search and rescue unit, Jack discovers the pitfalls and perils of one of the most dangerous jobs on earth. When one of Jack's rescue operations goes horribly wrong, he ends up somewhere inside a burning building while his comrades attempt to get him out. It's at this point in the story that the filmmakers flash back to Jack's beginnings as a firefighter, his eventual courting of and marriage to the lovely Linda (Jacinda Barrett), the birth of his son, and the deaths of some of his best friends at work. Jack's life hangs by a thread -- can his buddies save him in time, or will he succumb to the dangers of the blaze?
I know that each movie needs to be taken on its own merits. I don't watch Jeepers Creepers 2 just so I can compare it to Schindler's List. This much I understand. Yet I could not watch Ladder 49 without thinking about director Ron Howard's Backdraft. The reason is simple: Backdraft is simply a better, more exciting movie about heroic firefighters than Ladder 49. It's not that Ladder 49 doesn't try its best -- the movie has a lot going for it, including its two lead actors (Travolta and Phoenix) and some amazingly accurate -- at least from what I know -- action sequences. But when all is said and done with the credits rolling, Ladder 49 comes up short when compared to Backdraft.
I mention Backdraft because, when you think about it, there haven't been that many movies centered solely on firefighters. Off the top of my head, I can only think of two others: John Wayne's 1968 action flick Hellfighters, and Steve Martin's comedy Roxanne -- one of which is a comedy, though I'll let you guess which one. So when you get a movie like Backdraft, you're setting the bar as high as it can go. And that's why Ladder 49 pales in comparison.
One of my big issues with Ladder 49 is that it wants to be a character study, but doesn't have much in the way of characters to study. Both the main and peripheral firefighters are all interchangeable, with endless amounts of bravery. Never once did I get the impression that anyone was fearful of (or even cautious about) running into a burning building. I don't question firefighters' courage, but I do question a film that shows the firefighters without any real complexity.
Phoenix does a decent job of starting the film as a doe-eyed rookie and ending it as a hardened firefighter who knows the risks of the job -- unfortunately, I never felt that I saw his character arc anywhere in between. Travolta spends much of the film either (a) looking worried, (b) talking about how much his firefighting crew means to him, or (c) in his underwear, playing practical jokes on the newbies. Sadly, the supporting characters are left with little to do during the rest of the film. Robert Patrick (Fire In The Sky), Balthazar Getty (Lost Highway), and Morris Chestnut (Anacondas: The Hunt For The Blood Orchid) all float in and out of the picture without much impact. As it stands, they're either there to either die in a raging fire, or to help other characters play practical jokes on the rookies. In fact, Ladder 49 would have you believe that being a firefighter is nearly the equivalent of being a clown in the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus.
As directed by Jay Russell (My Dog Skip, Tuck Everlasting), Ladder 49 usually clips along, flashing back between different times and dates. If nothing else, I can say that the film isn't boring; the action sequences are all well executed and realistic. And yet...it still can't hold a candle (pun intended) to Howard's Backdraft, a film that is now over a decade old. Sadly, I keep coming back to that fact -- it's never a promising sign when a film keeps reminding you how good another movie is.
Ladder 49 makes a worthwhile rental on a Friday night if...well, "you know what" is out of stock at your local Blockbuster. The end of the film gets a bit weepy, and it's never overtly violent or mean -- in other words, it may make a nice rental for you and your sweetheart. Just be careful when the movie ends that she doesn't want to find herself a strapping young firefighter for a change.
Ladder 49 is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The truth is that this transfer is nothing short of great -- Buena Vista has made sure that the image on this disc looks spectacular. The colors (lots of reds and oranges) nearly jump off the screen with vital clarity. The black levels are all impressively dark and detailed. I didn't spot any dirt, grain, or other imperfections that would otherwise mar the image. The flesh tones are accurately represented and in good shape. Overall, fans of the film will be very happy with this widescreen print of the film. A full frame version of the film is also available, but not recommended.
The soundtrack to Ladder 49 is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in both English and French. Much like the video transfer, this sound mix is excellent. There is a great balance of front, center and rear sound effects throughout the length of the film. The viewer is often immersed inside of a raging fire, to scary effect. All aspects of the mix are completely free of any hiss or distortion. Also included on this disc are French and Spanish subtitles, as well as a THX optimizer to set up your TV and sound system.
This DVD edition of Ladder 49 includes a few extra features that fans should thrill to. Starting off the disc is a commentary track by director Jay Russell and editor Bud Smith. Both participants delve into what it took to bring this film to the silver screen. While I may not have been totally enamored of the final product, I have much respect for the time and energy it took to make the film appear realistic. This isn't the most engaging audio track every recorded, but it's a worthwhile listen for fans of the film.
"The Making of Ladder 49" is a 20-minute featurette that gives fans a peek behind the scenes of the shoot. This is better than the usual EPK featurette -- there's some footage of the training sessions the actors had to go through, and even a bit on the mostly minor injuries that occurred onset (like Travolta being burned and treated by the medics). Included in this featurette are interviews with most of the key players, including Travolta, Russell, and Phoenix.
"Everyday Heroes" is a 14-minute featurette about real-life firefighters (and is, ironically enough, more emotionally engaging than the actual film). This short featurette follows Lt. Donald Schafer from Engine Company 5 as he receives an award with his family in tow. While this is a nice piece, I hesitate to say that in the wake of all the documentaries on the heroes of 9/11, it's nothing we haven't seen before.
Finally, there are five deleted scenes in mildly rough form, and a music video for the song "Shine Your Light" by singer Robbie Robertson.
To be clichéd; Ladder 49 isn't bad, but it isn't very good, either; it's just sort of there. I wish the filmmakers and writers would have done something better with the characters and their perilous situations. Buena Vista's work on this disc is about on par with what it warranted.
I'm in the mood for a really good firefighter movie. Can anyone lend me a copy of Backdraft?
Review content copyright © 2005 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary Featuring Director Jay Russell and Editor Bud Smith
* Deleted Scenes
* Featurette: "The Making of Ladder 49"
* Featurette: "Everyday Heroes"
* Music Video: "Shine Your Light," Featuring Robbie Robertson
* Official Site