I give firefighters an enormous amount of respect. They go into burning buildings and save lives while risking their own. "Ladder 49", however, isn't quite the movie to honor their efforts. The picture, a Hollywood drama, opens with Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) running into a giant, burning building in order to help. After he saves a life, the floor gives out from under him and he falls through the floors, eventually landing with a painful thud.
While stuck in the burning building, he flashes back to when he began fighting fires, and the movie goes from there. He's "the new guy" at first, but after doing some good work on his first cases, he starts to get respect from station chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) and the other members of the crew. He also meets Linda (Jacinda Barrett, formerly of "The Real World"), and the two get married shortly after, although she worries often about his safety.
As time passes, some of Jack's friends are lost, more fires are fought and he makes a family with Linda. Essentially, this is a fine situation for a movie, but boy there's no cliche not added into this tale, and director Jay Russell never is satisfied to let the story earn its own emotions, as every moment has some utterly manipulative tune (I mean, there's ballads!) or piece of score (one of the most generic scores I've heard in ages) on the soundtrack.
The performances are just okay, as well. Phoenix is a little too subdued to work well for this role, while Travolta does his sort of thing, including some of that snippy kind of angry delivery like he did in "Broken Arrow". The supporting players, who don't get a lot of screen time, fare better. Despite not getting much to play (the supporting characters really aren't developed much at all), supporters like Barrett and Robert Patrick make more of an impression.
"Ladder 49" is a well-intentioned movie, but it's a sometimes cheesy, corny flick. It goes by fairly quickly, but there is not a whole lot of story - the movie instead goes through the day-to-day of one particular department, for the most part. In the firefighters' off time in the movie, they seemed to be always be drinking, which seemed unrealistic. The way the movie ended actually really surprised me, as it really didn't end the way I expected it to. Whether that's a good thing or not, I don't know, but it was something surprising in a movie that's otherwise pretty predictable. Firemen definitely deserve to have their stories told, but "Ladder 49" puts a bit too much Hollywood manipulation into the mix instead of letting the situations and characters create drama and emotion.
VIDEO: "Ladder 49" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen by Buena Vista/Touchstone. This is a THX-Certified presentation. This was a perfectly decent presentation that was above-average, but failed to rise above that due to a few faults. Sharpness and detail were solid on average, although some inconsistencies turned up at times, as some wide shots looked a bit soft, as did a few other moments.
Edge enhancement also turned up in mild-to-moderate amounts briefly in a few scenes. Aside from the occasional edge enhancement and softness, the picture generally looked good: only one or two specks were spotted on the print, and no pixelation or other faults were visible. The film's color palette was represented in fine fashion here, with nice saturation and no smearing. Flesh tones also looked accurate and natural.
SOUND: "Ladder 49" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. For this DVD edition, we're offered a sound mix that's been "Enhanced For Home Theater". Never having seen the movie theatrically, I can't comment on differences, but during the most intense moments, the audio certainly became awfully intense. Surrounds come to life remarkably well throughout the fire sequences, as crackling wood, fire and other sounds come so effectively from the surrounds (those who can enable a back surround should, as it adds greatly to the enveloping feeling of the sound mix) that you feel totally and completely in the middle of the action. During these sequences, I have to say that this ranks as one of the most remarkable sound mixes I've heard in a while.
EXTRAS: The main supplement is an audio commentary from director Jay Russell and editor Bud Smith. "The Making of Ladder 49" ran 21 minutes and provides some good tidbits, even though some of it played like a standard "making of". The documentary offered interviews from director Jay Russell, writer Lewis Colick, the actors and others, who chatted about working on the picture and their feelings on trying to honor firefighters. The documentary talks about how the actors actually did some of their own stunts and gives us a brief look at different aspects of the production, such as sound design.
The 13-minute "Everyday Heroes" is an emotional and interesting look at the lives of a group of real-life Baltimore firefighters. We see both the work and home lives of these firefighters, who talk about some of their stories. What this piece presents is really involving, entertaining and saddening at times. As I note in the conclusion of this review, I think someone could do a terrific documentary traveling to both small town and big city stations to get a look at the everyday lives of actual firefighters.
Final Thoughts: There should be a movie to honor firefighters, because they are heroes. "Ladder 49" is watchable, but it could have let the story and characters create the drama instead of being manipulative. Hopefully, in the future, someone will do a documentary spending time with real firefighters in large city and small town stations across the country. As for "Ladder 49", Buena Vista/Touchstone's DVD offers good image quality, fantastic audio and some good supplements. Those interested should try it as a rental.