Some like it hot

After facing down aliens in <i>Signs</i> and monsters in <i>The Village</i>, Joaquin Phoenix finally finds a worthy opponent in fire.

After facing down aliens in Signs and monsters in The Village, Joaquin Phoenix finally finds a worthy opponent in fire.

Rated 3.0

I didn’t have very high hopes going into Ladder 49. The first half hour or so of this firefighter drama starring Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta, although somewhat competent, met my fairly low expectations. It looked like it would be just another surface treatment of the bravery of firemen, lacking depth, featuring cardboard characters and relying on pyrotechnics for entertainment value. While the film has some of the above flaws, it does have a mighty big heart in telling the story of Jack (Phoenix), a firefighter and selfless man who is buried under debris in a burning building near the film’s beginning. Director Jay Russell (who skippered the touching pooch flick My Dog Skip) uses a surprising flashback technique to show events in Jack’s life leading up to his unfortunate predicament.

When Jack first becomes trapped and the flashback begins, there is the impression that this is a rookie who has fallen on some bad luck early in his career. The flashbacks start with Jack’s initiation at the firehouse, his first fire, and his wedding to a woman (Jacinda Barrett) he picks up in a supermarket. The action occasionally cuts back to Jack in the building, communicating with his Chief (John Travolta) on the radio and seemingly getting himself out of trouble.

As the flashbacks mount, it becomes clear that Jack isn’t a rookie in trouble. He’s a veteran with over 10 years of firefighting experience, having saved many lives and lost some buddies in the line of duty. As Jack’s seniority becomes apparent, Ladder 49 starts to have a completely different effect. The film isn’t about the dire situation Jack currently lies in, but about the heroic and sometimes conflicted life that preceded it.

It’s a nice touch, and it lends the film a certain gravity that makes it heartwarming in the end. Phoenix has made a name for himself playing quiet yet surly types, and he’s very much in his element with Jack. This is, perhaps, the most likeable character he’s portrayed to date, and the sensitivity he brings to the role garners Jack much sympathy for his plight. The scenes Phoenix shares with Barrett generate a sweet yet realistic chemistry. They are a believable married couple.

The film offers up a predictable group of firehouse inhabitants. Robert Patrick is especially grating as the crusty veteran who despises rookies. Morris Chestnut is on hand to get a major injury and heroically survive, while Balthazar Getty fades into the background as a relative newbie who loses his brother. None of these characters are allowed much dimension, which hurts the film on some levels. Others give off the vibe of the Star Trek extra wearing the red shirt (which means they are soon to die or face great peril).

These inconsistencies are outweighed by strong work from the main stars. Travolta’s performance, although marred by the occasional overwrought moment, contains some of his more subtle work in years. I liked the way his Chief Kennedy showed up for weddings and children’s birthdays bearing gifts and smiles, then went off alone into the night, having divorced his wife years earlier due to the rigors of his job. Travolta’s mannerisms seem to reflect a well-meaning man whose job takes precedence over everything in his life, including family relationships. The boys in his house are all he’s got.

Ladder 49 packs a significant punch in its final act with an ending that left me more than a little surprised. Phoenix and Travolta put this one over the top and provide a rousing tribute to a majestic, and incredibly difficult, profession. (CPL, CR, CS, NM)