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Ladder 49 (2004)

A bond forged by fire is never broken.

Rating: 4/10

Running Time: 105 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 12a

Fire! She’s man’s most ancient friend, but also our most ancient foe. Sure, she might toast our marshmallows and keep us snuggly in the wintertime – but, when she starts ravaging our homes and destroying our disused warehouses, the truce is well and truly off.

And that’s when we need firefighters. Firefighters like Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), who might not have much going on in his own upstairs department, but is always quick to respond when trouble starts a-blazing in someone else’s. ‘Ladder 49’ is the story of Jack’s life as a fireman bold – the loves, the losses and, of course, the roaring flames, and all of it told in flashback as he lies battered and bruised on the floor of a burning (natch) building. Ah yes, there’s no crueller a mistress than Old Madam Flame.

There’s no doubt that there’s some pretty spectacular special effects and stunt work going on in ‘Ladder 49’. Director Jay Russell’s got a substantial budget at his disposal, and it shows. But there’s little else to like about a film that bombards us with schmaltz from all sides, from its incessant preaching of the firemen-are-really-brave message to the unbearably heroic Braveheart-style music which kicks in every time another fire has been extinguished or faceless member of the public saved.

Both Phoenix and John Travolta (who plays the station’s captain and mentor) are two very capable actors, but the performances in both cases are quite simply not up to standard. That strange expression on Phoenix’s face throughout the entirety of the movie might be intended to pass as that of a man increasingly tortured by inner demons, but to me it looked more like what could only be described as bewildered constipation.

I wanted to like ‘Ladder 49’, but it’s so smothered in thick, gooey cheese that all those flames only had me wishing I’d brought along my fondue set. Instead of simply getting on with things and trying to tell us its story, it’s permanently bogged down in its own cynical attempt to make the audience cry. Okay, so I’ll admit that I WAS close to tears by the time it finished – but only through thinking about all the ways that multi-million dollar budget could have been spent instead.

It's Got: Joaquin Phoenix falling into a burning ring of fire – he goes down, down, down, and the flames go higher.

It Needs: To stop beating the viewer over the head with its “everyday heroes” message. Firemen ARE brave – WE GET IT, OKAY?


This blazing drama might have its characters feeling hot, hot, hot, but it left this reviewer feeling cold, cold, cold.