Watching Ladder 49, one is reminded of a small, real-life moment, witnessed a few years back: An older policeman, sitting in a Starbucks, was loudly lecturing his rookie partner on the finer points of the patrolman's life. "Being a cop means making unpopular decisions," said the veteran officer. "If you want to be a hero that everyone likes, be a firefighter." Ladder 49 is a sort of two-hour bearing-out of that remark. Telling the story of one blue-collar bloke's (Joaquin Phoenix) reflections on a life spent fighting fires, it's a sweet-natured but utterly two-dimensional ode to the heroes of the Baltimore City FD a post-9/11 hagiography that unabashedly loves all its characters and lionizes the Irish-Catholic community of rescue workers. Certainly, there's nothing wrong with saluting anyone who puts his or her life on the line for the rest of us. But that, by itself, ain't good drama. As directed by Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting) from a script by Lewis Colick (October Sky), the film feels like nothing so much as an extended TV-series episode. But even that isn't exactly fair, because these days you'll find more complex characters (and fewer corny pop songs) in your average episode of "Rescue Me" or even "Third Watch" than you will in Ladder 49 reinforcing, again, the critical suspicion that all the best filmmaking is happening on TV right now. That said, the movie does get a few things right. Structurally, it's kind of interesting we see Phoenix's decade with the BCFD as a series of flashbacks he's having while trapped in a burning factory. And there's an infectious good humor in all the scenes of male bonding (with co-workers including John Travolta, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, and Balthazar Getty). Everyone looks appropriately beefed-up, if a bit mustache-challenged, as they drink beer, play pranks on each other, and bark Important Action Dialogue over their walkie-talkies like "Go go go!" and "Talk to me!" And there's something quiet and strong about the plainspoken, inarticulate way Phoenix expresses himself as he courts his future wife (Jacinda Barrett) and explains the dangers of the job to his frightened young son. It's also nice that the "bad guy" in Ladder 49 is simply fire itself not, as in Backdraft, a silly serial arsonist and cartoonishly corrupt axe-swinging firefighters and Jennifer Jason Leigh wanting to mambo on top of a fire engine. But still Russell's direction falls a bit flat, the burning buildings occasionally feel like sets, and there's a lot of empty heft in the sheer number of funerals and parades and awards ceremonies scattered throughout the picture. Travolta, as the fire-station captain, is also serving up some lightly toasted ham-salad; his shrill variations on "Go go go!" and "Talk to me!" induce mild titters. Meanwhile, the film leans on its soundtrack like an amputee on a crutch with one particularly un-subtle Robbie Robertson song bombarding us with lyrics like "The cry of the city! Like a siren song!" There's also something deeply contrived about a scene where Barrett apparently under the impression that she'd been married to an ice-cream vendor all these years picks a fight with Phoenix after she suddenly realizes her husband could die in the line of duty. Ultimately, Ladder 49 moves us with a couple of its grittier dramatic choices, but overall the film feels cheap tugging a little too hard on the almost-instinctual pride you feel when seeing a hero in fireman's dress. We all know firefighters are heroes; show us the humans under the hats.
Buena Vista's DVD release of Ladder 49 offers a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a commentary from director Jay Russell and editor Bud Smith, featurettes "The Making of Ladder 49" (21 min.) and "Everyday Heroes" (13 min.), a deleted scenes reel (13 min.), and the music video for "Shine Your Light" by Robbie Robertson. Keep-case.