Although most critics didn't...*ahem*...warm up to director Jay Russell's Ladder 49 (2004), this post-9/11 tribute to our nation's hard-working firefighters isn't a bad effort at all. The timing was right for cynics to come out of the woodwork, claiming the film relied too heavily on cheap patriotism and sentimentality for its own good. Maybe they're right, to a certain extent. It's also true that the film has its fair share of faults, but a number of positive elements---including a handful of great performances and a number of stunning rescue sequences---make this one worth a look, no matter what you might've heard.
Essentially, Ladder 49 is the story of Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), a Baltimore firefighter who is critically injured during a nighttime blaze. While his fellow firefighters do everything in their power to rescue him, his "life's story" (starting from his first day on the job) plays out as the film progresses. Dating, marriage, kids, personal tragedy...the works. While the plot's general level of detail isn't the major selling point, the way it's presented is engaging and effective. The film's pacing is another highlight: while the first two-thirds of the film favors a slower, more deliberate series of everyday events, the film's third act picks up the pace quite nicely.
Here's some more good news: a number of the film's cast do a believable job of bringing their characters to life. Although I had my doubts about John Travolta's character (Captain Mike Kennedy) at first, his presence as the "team leader" proved to be a genuine highlight. It's always good to see Robert Patrick (playing Lenny Richter) in action, and Morris Chestnut provides a nice supporting role as Tommy Drake. A few other performances rest a little near the middle, though: Joaquin Phoenix does a decent job as Jack Morrison, but he doesn't seem to have the right amount of charisma for the film's protagonist. Additionally, Jacinda Barret (playing Jack's wife, Linda) doesn't stand out as much as she should, although she really isn't given much to work with.
Here's some more bad news: even with the film's strength, there's a few instances where things seem a little sloppy. For starters, the film has trouble staying focused on the most important issues, mainly in the first act. While it's nice to see the personal lives of several key characters---dating, shopping, hanging out---these scenes could have been spread out a bit more, allowing for a more layered story overall. The chemistry between Jack and Linda early on in their relationship is anything but electric, particularly a bit of bedroom talk that isn't quite as eyeroll-inducing as a certain animal cracker scene in Armageddon...but hey, it's pretty darn close.
Despite these flaws, though, Ladder 49 remains a well-crafted drama about a profession that rarely gets the respect it deserves. The aforementioned rescue sequences are also noteworthy---one could only imagine the amount of danger present in filming such scenes without the use of CGI. It's far more believable than Backdraft, and doubles as an entertaining film with a surprisingly realistic, touching conclusion. It's also nice to know that Buena Vista has treated Ladder 49 better on DVD than critics did at the box office. Highlights include an excellent technical presentation and a nice assortment of bonus features, making this a solid disc that fans of the film will really enjoy. With that said, let's see how this disc stacks up, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Presentation:
Presented in a terrific 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, Ladder 49 looks great...even when it's not supposed to. The color palette is bold and there are no major digital imperfections to be found, although the dense levels of smoke tend to slightly pixellate on occasion. Still, it's a fine presentation that won't disappoint in the least. The Dolby Digital 5.1 "Enhanced Home Theater" mix is even better, offering terrific ambience and a surprising amount of low end during the rescue sequences. There's also a French 5.1 Surround mix, as well as English captions and Spanish or French subtitles.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
Highlighted by simple and elegant animated menus, the navigation for Ladder 49 is smooth and problem-free. The 105-minute film has been divided into a scant 12 chapters, with a layer change detected near the 56-minute mark. All bonus features are presented in either 1.33:1 or non-anamorphic 1.78:1 aspect ratios. This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase, and also includes a nice insert guide and a few advertisements for your buying convenience.
There's a nice mix of extras provided here, although they could've been a bit meatier. The most notable is a feature-length Audio Commentary with director Jay Russell and editor Bud Smith, as the pair offer an entertaining track that fans will enjoy. Although it may have been nice to hear from the cast as well, these two present a nice amount of personal insight in a laid back, approachable manner with only a few pauses along the way. On a related note, The Making of Ladder 49 (21:09) offers an additional glimpse behind the scenes. Divided into three sections---"On Location" (5:25), "Fire Academy: Training the Actors" (7:11) and "Anatomy of a Scene: The Warehouse Fire" (8:33)---there's a nice mix of personal and technical info here, although I'd have liked to see more storyboards.
Moving on, Everday Heroes (13:38) follows a few real-life stories of the Baltimore Fire Department. It's a shame there couldn't have been a more in-depth presentation here---especially from a historical perspective---but it's a nice touch nonetheless. Next up is a selection of Deleted Scenes (13:59), including an interesting (but unnecessary) sequence revolving around the actual 9/11 tragedy. There's also a Music Video for Robbie Robertson's "Shine Your Light", although it doesn't do much to break the typical "soundtrack video" mold. Last but not least, there's a few Sneak Peaks for upcoming Buena Vista releases, including The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and National Treasure.
It's a shame the film itself may not be the disc's strongest feature, but Ladder 49 still manages to be a well-rounded and enjoyable release. An excellent technical presentation and a few key supplements provide a nice amount of support, so fans of the film should pick this up without hesitation. If you're on the fence with this one, a rental might be your best bet---it's certainly not for everyone, but those who like Ladder 49 initially should find that it'll hold up to repeat viewings. Overall, most DVD fanatics should consider this solid release Recommended.
Randy Miller III is a moderately affable art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.