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LADDER 49

As a drama about firefighters, Ladder 49 is so proudly conventional that it makes Ron Howardís Backdraft look avant-garde. Itís like an old World War II movie, with a platoon of guys male-bonding through practical jokes but showing resolute camaraderie and fearlessness in the face of the enemy, even as their buddies get picked off. Thereís nobility, sacrifice, no real moral conflict, and no real characters. What suspense there is is built into the filmís flashback structure. Jack Morrison (an unusually stolid Joaquin Phoenix), having saved a civilianís life but gotten himself trapped in a burning tower in the process, is reminiscing about his life, which apparently began the day he became a fireman. Can the other firefighters, led by Jackís buddy, deputy chief Mike Kennedy (a miscast John Travolta), rescue him before his flashbacks are over? 

The elephant in the firehouse here is September 11. Although never mentioned, it informs every frame of the film and implicitly justifies the movieís old-fashioned, flag-waving feeling. The fire effects director Jay Russell has mustered are pretty spectacular; too bad he hasnít lavished similar care on his charactersí motivations. Itís pretty hard to swallow the aw-shucks pieties of Lewis Colickís screenplay if youíve watched Denis Learyís TV series Rescue Me, with its penetrating look into the psychology of postĖSeptember 11 firemen and its portrayal of its heroes as fully rounded, flawed human beings. Ladder 49 spends most of its time asking the burning question of what makes firefighters rush into an inferno that the rest of us rush out of, only to have Travolta answer it in a single word: "courage." Thatíll be $10, please. (115 minutes)

BY GARY SUSMAN

Issue Date: October 1 - 7, 2004
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