All fizzle, no fire

Nothing left but the mop-up after disappointing Ladder 49

GOT A LIGHT? Joaquin Phoenix is trapped in a burning building as the plot crumbles to pieces around him.

GOT A LIGHT? Joaquin Phoenix is trapped in a burning building as the plot crumbles to pieces around him.

Ladder 49
Starring Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta. Directed by Jay Russell. Rated PG-13.
Rated 2.0

It takes a preternatural talent to make a movie about firefighters boring, but director Jay Russell is so content to coast on the admiration the public feels for Ladder 49‘s real-life counterparts that he delivers up a tedious oleo of treacle that never manages to evoke anything near empathy for his cardboard cut-outs, nor summon any amount of suspense during the action scenes.

The script is barely competent—you know you’re in trouble when almost the first line of dialogue is, “I’m getting too old for this shit.” Aren’t we all?

Structurally, Ladder 49 is a fire hazard: We are introduced to our hero Jack Morrison (somnambulist Joaquin Phoenix) as he attempts to save a man trapped on the 12th floor of a blazing Baltimore warehouse. The melodrama is set in motion when the floor collapses from beneath him, plunging him into the rubble a few stories below. Trapped and injured, he passes out. Cue flashback one: his rookie days at the firehouse, filled with good-ol'-boy shenanigans.

After that vignette plays out, we’re back to Jack waking back up to his predicament, moaning a bit as his crewmates struggle to rescue him, then passing out again. Cue flashback two: meeting his future wife. And so it goes, a series of flashbacks tracing the man’s career arc with what is essentially a Rolodex of clichàs, with Jack’s dilemma serving as the spindle. Jack’s First Fire. The Birth of First Baby. The Death of Friend. The Worrying Wife. The Crisis of Faith. The Redemption. The Predictable Ending. Just call it The Passion of the Fireman.

It’s hard to feel any empathy for these characters, two-dimensional knock-off heroes without a shadow of complexity, barely sketched cartoons that rush into blazing buildings for one solitary reason: They want to save lives. No adrenaline junkies or paycheck Joes here, just square-jawed recruitment poster models. Without anything to sink their teeth into, the actors are content to shamble from fire to fire, for the most part dead-eyed and expressionless.

As a two-hour paean to firefighters, I suppose the movie is worthwhile if it compels a bureaucrat to loosen a city’s purse strings for adequate funding, but as compelling cinema it’s a few rungs short … and makes Backdraft look good.