Let's go ahead and get this out of the way: Is Ladder 49 as good as Backdraft? No. It's just as bad as Backdraft.
Veteran Baltimore firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) is critically injured while performing a rescue operation in a burning warehouse. As Morrison's former mentor, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), organizes efforts to extract his friend and colleague from the building, Morrison relives moments from his life and career, including his first day on the job, his relationship with his wife, Linda (Jacinda Barrett), and the death of one of his closest friends.
Ladder 49 isn't a bad movie, but it is a dull one. Given that we're dealing with a firefighter flick directed by the man who helmed My Dog Skip and written by the man who penned October Sky, I was prepared for some square-jawed heroics mixed with a dose of mawkish sentimentality, and the movie certainly supplies both. But it does so in a mundane, boring manner; the whole movie's on autopilot. Mawkish I can live with. Boring's a completely different story.
Let's start with Lewis Colick's script. The story covers more than a decade in Morrison's life, and this wasn't a good idea. Nor, for that matter, was the flashback-heavy structure. Add this up and you get very chopping storytelling, which fatally works against the movie's effectiveness. We're supposed to be caught up in one man's struggle to get back to his family, and his friends' struggle to bring him out alive, but we never come to care about the characters, which makes all of their sacrifices and efforts meaningless. Real-world human beings who have dedicated their lives to saving others are heroes; the same is not automatically true of their fictional counterparts, who require personalities and qualities with which we can identify. Every character in Ladder 49 is a stereotype or, if they're one of the fortunate ones, an archetype. Honestly, this is all I know about the firefighters in this movie: they're practical jokers who really love each other. That's it. Other than Morrison, we know nothing of their lives outside the firehouse, and very of their lives little within it.
Stories that cover a large chunk of their characters' lives work best when we get a sense of the passage of time; this generally works better in the written word than it does in film, but it nevertheless can be made to work. Unfortunately, Colick doesn't even try. Years go by in the blink of an eye, with only the age of Morrison's children to clue us in as to how much time has passed (the adult characters don't seem to age a day). Colick attempts to inject tension into the story at several points, but it's completely artificial tension. For example, there's a conflict between the characters played by Morris Chestnut and Robert Patrick, but the origin of the conflict is never revealed, nor is there any sort of payoff. There's also the standard scene in which the main character's wife yells at her husband because he's selfish for only having thought of himself when he signed up for a dangerous job; this also has no resolution, and the scene seems to exist simply because most movies of this ilk contain similar moments.
Given director Jay Russell's résumé, I'm not sure exactly why he was brought aboard. As I mentioned earlier, he has some experience at tugging on the old heartstrings, but he has no idea how to handle the other half of the story. If you can't make the human element work, you have to compensate by ratcheting up the action and the pyrotechnics (The Towering Inferno is still the best example of this). Problem is, there's no charge or immediacy to the fire sequences here; they're just as dull as the rest of the movie. Russell never puts us in the middle of the action; his compositions are too static and distant (come to think of it, that's a good way to describe the movie itself). And he has an annoying habit of employing slow-motion right before anything startling or tragic is about to happen, which removes the element of surprise and shock by telegraphing what is ahead (not that you'd need a roadmap and compass to know where the movie's headed, anyway).
Now let's get to the movie's other major flaw--the leads. Phoenix can be a good actor, but he's certainly no leading man. He's simply not sympathetic or engaging enough to play this sort of role. And it doesn't help that he looks like he's in serious danger of falling asleep at any given moment. Travolta does little more than smile or yell; then again, that's essentially all the script gives him to do. And if you're going to take a shortcut with the romantic elements, Jacinda Barrett isn't really the ideal choice for the female half of the relationship; I've yet to see her exhibit any sort of presence, and there's no reason to believe anyone would go gaga over her at first sight.
Up first is a commentary by director Jay Russell and editor Bud Smith. Not surprisingly, the track focuses primarily on the technical and logistical aspects of the shoot.
The Making of Ladder 49 (21 minutes) is a fairly standard making-of featurette. It's divided into sections covering the locations, the actors' training, and a dissection of the warehouse fire shoot.
Everyday Heroes (14 minutes) takes a look at the lives of several real-life firefighters. As is often the case with this sort of featurette, it's far more interesting and engaging than the movie, and should have run longer.
Five deleted scenes (14 minutes total) are also included.
Closing things out is the music video for Robbie Robertson's "Shine Your Light," which is featured over the closing credits. (It's been nearly a decade since Robertson released new music and this is all he has to offer?)