Sometimes, a movie is so good, and is going so well, that you find yourself sitting tensely in your seat, afraid the filmmakers might blow it. Then, there comes a time when you finally relax, because you realize that no, it’s OK; they’re not going to blow it. This can happen in all kinds of movies, from Tootsie to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Pulp Fiction to last year’s remake of Peter Pan.
Sometimes, though, they do blow it. Ladder 49 blows it big time, with a double-barreled disaster of an ending that all but ruins what is, to that point, one of the best movies of the year.
Relax; there are no spoilers here. But I’ll say this much: One of the most odious and annoying clichés of modern movies is the onscreen ovation—that scene, usually at or near the end, where a bunch of strangers in a restaurant, or an airport, or a factory, or a Starbucks, suddenly burst into wild applause, cheering and whistling for someone they’ve never seen before and will never see again. It’s a shameless and insulting jab in the audience’s ribs, demanding that they react likewise—often when the movie itself hasn’t earned it.
Ladder 49 ends with one of those, and it comes at a time when only someone who is hopelessly cocooned from real life by dense layers of hack screenwriting would even think to resort to it. Then, to make things worse, director Jay Russell and writer Lewis Colick follow up with a Robbie Robertson song on the soundtrack. It’s not that the song is a bad one—it’s Robbie Robertson, after all—but that it’s such a cheap and blatant bid for an Oscar: the equivalent of desperate overacting.
This one-two punch of shoddy manipulation does terrible damage to the movie. It doesn’t just “ruin the mood”—it’s so gob-smackingly, obviously wrong that it makes everything that went before it, the 87 or so minutes during which Russell and Colick hardly put a foot wrong, look like a fluke, dumb luck, and I felt like a sucker for falling for it.
But until that time, Ladder 49 is a great ride—exciting and visually impressive, with the dramatic ring of truth. Joaquin Phoenix plays Jack Morrison, a veteran Baltimore firefighter. We first see him responding to a massive fire at a 20-story waterfront warehouse. High in the building in the heart of the blaze, Jack rescues a trapped worker, lowering him over the side into a waiting rescue bucket. Then, suddenly, the floor under Jack’s feet gives way, and he falls through a couple of floors, landing stunned and possibly injured. As the fire rages around him, Jack is unsure where he is, but he’s still in radio contact with Chief Kennedy (John Travolta). As Kennedy feverishly organizes a rescue mission, Jack, despite the urgency, has time to reflect on his life as a firefighter.
The movie takes us through Jack’s career in a series of flashbacks, beginning with his arrival at the firehouse as a rookie 10 years earlier. We see him grow in expertise and confidence, and we see his rapport and occasional conflicts with co-workers played by Travolta, Robert Patrick, Balthazar Getty and Morris Chestnut. We see Jack’s courtship, marriage and family life with his wife, Linda (Jacinda Barrett, in a breakthrough performance), and the domestic strains caused by Jack’s hazardous work. And always, at intervals, the movie returns to Jack in his present dilemma, as Kennedy and the others race the flames to find him.
Russell and Colick handle these scenes with vigorous efficiency. There’s hardly a wasted frame of film or word of dialogue; nothing seems sketchy or incomplete, and characters are established in a kind of vivid dramatic shorthand.
Then, mere inches from the finish line, the movie simply goes to hell. Russell and Colick break a fundamental rule of filmmaking, one that’s been memorably enumerated by Alfred Hitchcock (I can’t say more without saying too much). And then the twin blunders of the ovation and the song make the collapse complete.
Ladder 49 is still worth seeing for all the things it gets right. But be warned: When the ending becomes clear, don’t wait; head for the door. You don’t want to see what happens next; it’s just too heartbreaking.