Touchstone Pictures // 2004 // 115 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // March 26th, 2007
Everything they know, all that they love, is what they risk every day.
With several years having passed since the tragic events of 9/11/01, America and its friends continue to admire and acknowledge the remarkable skill and devotion of firefighters around the world. In a well deserved nod to the bravery and commitment of these very special individuals, Director Ray Russell stepped into this project to depict the real life of the firefighter, free of sensationalism and hyperactive plot points, reminding us there are real people beneath the fire-protective gear.
While responding to a massive fire at a Baltimore grain elevator, firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix, Hotel Rwanda) becomes trapped deep inside the 20-storey building after a floor collapses beneath him. Severely injured and separated from the other firefighters, Jack can barely respond when radioed by his crew Captain, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta, Phenomenon). Capt. Kennedy works feverishly to guide the firefighters to Jack's location before the blaze consumes the entire structure. As Jack ponders what might be his final day, he recounts his rookie experiences with the station members, his courting of and marriage to his wife Linda (Jacinda Barrett, Poseidon), the birth of his children, and, ultimately, what has driven him into a life as an "everyday hero," always ready to help others without hesitation.
It's not Backdraft -- let's be clear about that. Frankly, Ladder 49 is a film best viewed after having read a review of it. That is, the film isn't the sort of action spectacle that some viewers might expect in this time of over-the-top entertainment exhilaration. Instead, what unfolds here is a character study that intimately examines the life of the firefighter and his "family" of fellow comrades. Director Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting) delivers his film in a way that holds firefighters in high reverence -- and rightly so -- without exploiting their daily perils for sake of cinematic titillation. Effectively, then, Russell allows viewers to ride along with the firefighters and learn more about them as human beings, with friends, families, and foibles, rather than merely propping them up as two-dimensional action figures.
As you may have surmised from the "Facts of the Case," the narrative is presented via a flashback structure. The film opens with the grain elevator inferno, giving viewers an immediate look at the scope of the danger that firefighters can face on any given day. The blaze is amazing (an actual fire, not a CGI fake). We meet up with Jack, Capt. Kennedy, and the rest of the crew at the outset. Upon suffering a several-story fall through the crumbling floors, we then journey back into Jack's past as he revisits his earliest days as a rookie and the subsequent life events that preceded this particular moment. The method is effective in that it not only provides an immediate visual "hook" to capture audiences' attention, but also provides a compelling situation to provoke an interest in this particular firefighter's life and how he could ever evolve into the sort of individual that would "run into a burning building while other are running out." In a way, Russell's approach turns the action genre on its head, reminding viewers that these brave men and women -- the same sort that served during (and perhaps didn't survive) the 9/11 emergencies -- are real people who lead real lives. Russell, by making the action set pieces secondary to the human elements, has effectively delivered a film that makes us take pause and recognize the sacrifices of the firefighters, and be appropriately thankful for their unwavering commitment.
Joaquin Phoenix performs admirably as Jack, giving his character realistic depth and development. He stumbles and stammers a bit through his first firefighting experience, but Travolta, as Kennedy, is right behind him, mentoring the rookie and helping develop his stamina and steadfastness in the face of danger. The two play their roles with proper chemistry, Phoenix as the wide-eyed "youngster" who grows into a competent fireman and Travolta as the well worn yet compassionate crew leader and father figure. Jacinda Barrett likewise brings refreshing depth to her character, the girl who falls for the charming yet bashful Jack and later grows into the wife and mother who must accept the fact that, on any day, the red fire captain's car may arrive to deliver the most dreadful news possible. Barrett refrains from becoming the caricature "action film wife" with the trite collection troubles, secrets, or jealousies, opting instead to portray Linda as a partner to Jack, working through wrinkles in the relationship and accepting the life of being married to a firefighter. Unfortunately, other characters remain underdeveloped. Robert Patrick (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) is cast as a somewhat cranky Lenny Richter, who only seems to exist to taunt the rookie. Morris Chestnut (The Cave) plays the likable Tommy Drake but, unfortunately, is present only to suffer an unthinkable accident. Other actors are on tap to fill up the fire station; some will endure mishaps and hardships, yet their revelation to us is so sparse that we realize they're only plot devices in the final tally.
Re-released in the Blu-ray format, Ladder 49 is a very competent and pleasing high-definition presentation. The 1080p / AVC encoded transfer provides a very realistic look and texture to the events of the film. The detail level is excellent -- the transfer never exhibits unwanted edge enhancement artifice nor overdone contrast push. With a large amount of the events occurring in dark and smoky interiors, take relief in the fact that the shadow detail is exceptional, delivering good detail without unnaturally inky black masses. The fires themselves are very impressive, every bit of detail -- from livid flame patterns to all manner of fiery debris -- rendered so well you'll likely want to skip back and look at it several times (especially the opening sequence of the fly-by at the grain elevator). Color is well rendered and stable, and the image is afforded an appropriate diffused quality that retains a satisfying film look.
The audio comes by way of a PCM 5.1 Uncompressed track that sports a well- defined soundstage and utilizes all channels when appropriate. The fiery sequences are punctuated with flames, crackles, and roaring life that will fully immerse you in the action. In other scenes that center on Jack and Linda or the men milling about the fire station, the audio is appropriately subdued without relinquishing the opportunity to deliver an ambient effect or two. And every time the fire station bell goes off, you'll likely jump at the startling spike in dynamic fidelity.
In a good move, Touchstone has seen fit to deliver this Blu-ray edition with the entire complement of extras originally included in the standard definition DVD release. Therefore, you'll first be treated to the active audio commentary from Russell and Editor Bud Smith. Russell never stops sharing information about the film, the actors, and the experience of creating the movie; Smith has real difficulty getting a word in edgewise. After that, the disc offers a couple of featurettes, the first of which is The Making of 'Ladder 49', a reasonably comprehensive 21-minute behind-the-scenes look at the production. Next is the 14-minute piece Everyday Heroes, that lets us spend a bit of time with real-life firefighters, who share their thoughts and reactions to the realism portrayed in Ladder 49. Following the featurettes are 14 minutes of deleted scenes, one in particular that addresses 9/11 directly but was likely deemed a bit too sensitive in the final analysis. Last up is Robbie Robertson's music video for "Shine Our Light." There isn't a theatrical trailer, but there is a collection of trailers for other Blu-ray films (this practice still confounds me).
Although Ladder 49 is intentionally character-centric in its focus, you can't help but feel a bit let down that this didn't emerge as an action picture. Again, this is a reaction you might experience during a first look at the film; you'll need to reset your expectations if you are to really grasp the value of the story.
Ladder 49 reminds us to remain ever cognizant of and thankful for the work of the men and women who routinely risk their lives in order to save the lives and livelihoods of others. Although the nation and the world gained a greater respect for these folks' untiring efforts through the 9/11 assault, this film makes us take note that, even though the media isn't buzzing about a large-scale drama, these men and women are still on the job and always poised to jump into action whenever the station bell erupts. For this, we should be grateful every day that they're on the job.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 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 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary by Director Jay Russell and Editor Bud Smith
* Featurette: The Making of 'Ladder 49'
* Featurette: Everyday Heroes
* Deleted Scenes
* "Shine Your Light" Music Video
* Blu-ray Previews
* Official Site