|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 08 March 2005|
"Ladder 49" tells the story of Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), a firefighter with the Baltimore, Maryland Fire Department. The movie covers over 10 years of Jack's life and service to the FD. The scope of the movie feels a lot like the pacing and emotional intensity of films back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The storytelling is grand and eloquent, sweeping and broad, yet the pacing suits today's audiences to a T by moving through the story in quick snapshots of action and emotional payoff.
The film starts with a gigantic structural fire in Chapter 1. Several stories tall, the building towers above the city in the night. Hose crews bombard the building with steady streams of water. Flames resemble a diabolical monster fighting to get free of the concrete cage that imprisons it. News helicopters circle the building and the throbbing crescendo of the rotor wash pours through surround sound systems, cutting from left to right and right to left to mimic the helicopter movements. Sirens cut through the noise, adding to the overall sense of urgency. The call quickly goes out, revealing that people are trapped on the twelfth floor and above, and that the building may explode.
The search and rescue squad, led by Jack, plunge into the building and ascend the steps into the abysmal, smoke-filled hell. The crackle and snap of flames close in on the viewer, lending authenticity to the scene. The disc audio mix is specifically geared for the home theater entertainment systems, and this is just one of the scenes that really pay off on that score. Only seconds later, Jack finds a survivor. One of the eerie sound effects used again and again throughout the film is the hoarse rasping of firemen breathing through their helmet masks and trying to stay in radio contact with command and each other. The audio brings this out superbly. Even as Jack tries to get his survivor out, more of the building falls. From outside, viewers are treated to a spectacular view of an explosion that blows flaming debris out over the streets, the emergency vehicles and personnel. Jack manages to lower the survivor to the ladder crew. Before he can make his own escape, though, the floor below Jack gives way and he plunges down, lost to the viewer.
Chapter 2 opens up with Irish music that is a theme for the menu screen as well as being predominant all through the film. The music haunts the viewer, sounding vulnerable and eternal at the same time. Jack approaches the firehouse on his first day of reporting for duty. Members of the shift usher him into the captain's quarters. Jack is already somewhat nervous because he's arrived late. Then he gets a look at Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), who tells him that they run a tight firehouse while at the same time offering him a drink and seeming to be either sleeping off a bad hangover or still inebriated. Kennedy tells him they roll on over 4,000 calls a year. One of the firemen escorts him from the captain's office to the priest to give confession. But this is just one of the pranks they perform for newbies and Jack quickly catches on. In a flurry of well-done scenes, Jack settles into the rhythm and routine of the firehouse. Pranks are part of the overall atmosphere.
Jack goes on his first fire call in Chapter 3. The firehouse gears up as the warning klaxon kicks through the surround sound system, quickly followed by the fire engine's horn as it speeds through the streets. The horn blasts wake up the subwoofer all over again. They arrive at the scene and Jack runs hose out to battle his first house fire. The rookie mistake of forgetting his fire helmet takes just a split second of screen time, but is a touchstone for every fireman in the audience who has either done the same thing or saw someone else do it on their first call. Jack overreacts and gets tangled up for a minute. His breath rasps through the mask, but the rat squeaks that rip through the surround sound system from all directions puts an end to that. Flames crackle all around Jack and, thanks to the surround sound system, they crackle all around the viewer as well. When Jack beats the blaze down with the water stream at Kennedy's urging, elation fills him and flows on into the viewer.
Chapter 4 cuts back to Jack's predicament in the present. He's trapped in the burning building, so beat up from the fall that he can scarcely move. Again, the omnipresent crackle of flames fills the surround sound system and reminds the watcher that a predatory beast is on the loose and just waiting for the chance to feast again. Commander Kennedy arrives and tries to contact Jack, wanting to make sure he's still alive and let him know they're trying to get to him. Then the chapter pulls back to the past again, to a scene in a grocery story where Jack and Dennis meet two young women. One of them is Linda (Jacinda Barrett), who is going to become Jack's wife. The scene is nicely underplayed and the meeting seems like something that would truly happen between two people.
The pranks continue in Chapter 5. Jack arrives at the firehouse and discovers his fellow firefighters have shoved a goose in his locker. He gets a phone call from Linda, and the Irish music again echoes softly as an undercurrent in the scene. The others ride him over the phone calls, but they quickly take to Linda when they all meet at the Irish pub Looney's for drinks once the shift is over. Again, the Irish music becomes a solid presence in the action.
Chapter 6 cuts back to the present, with Jack still in trouble as the search and rescue guys go in. Internal structures collapse and fill the subwoofer with tremendous crashes. Debris ricochets and echoes from the surround sound system constantly. Impacts out in the street resonate with grim authority. The computer graphics of the fire are intense, exhaustive and overwhelming, and we become convinced that no one is going to make it out of the building alive.
Even as Jack's situation seems to worsen, the storyline plunges into the past again. The scene where Jack and Linda get married with the firefighters in attendance brings an island of safety and security that defies what Jack is experiencing in the present. Time passes swiftly in a montage of scenes showing the arrival of a new rookie and the familiar games the viewer watched Jack go through. The band scene where the firehouse marches hammers the subwoofer. Only a short time later, Jack discovers Linda is going to have a baby.
Chapter 7 starts with a house fire. The team quickly rolls on the call, never knowing it will have life-changing consequences. They are playing pool before the call came in, just taking down time and being regular guys. Dennis, Jack's close buddy, falls through the roof when the fire weakens the supports and he dies. Other firemen have to drag Jack back from throwing himself in after Dennis. The fire crackles, a voracious force that will not be denied. Later, the shift deals with fallout from Dennis' death. The funeral is very touching, quiet against the raucous din of how a firefighter spends his time at his job. Linda suddenly realizes that it could happen to Jack and things between them get very tense. In a family scene that shows something of what Jack's life is like when he isn't at the firehouse or responding to a call, Jack is busy putting a baby bed together and discussing with Linda the fact that he's taking Dennis' place on the search and rescue team. In the next scene, Jack talks to Kennedy and sees the captain’s legacy in mementos. We are shown that firefighting is often a family tradition, passing from grandfather to father to son. Later in the chapter, Jack rescues a man trapped out on a building ledge high above the street. Linda and Jack have an argument over the risks he's taking because he says the day was no big deal and she saw him on the news, dangling from the rope while attempting to crash through a window to safety.
Jack and Linda's first baby is born in Chapter 8. The scene passes without dialogue and moves directly into our hearts through sheer emotions and images. Back in the present day, Jack hangs on desperately. Water runs down all around him, bringing home the fact that a fireman has two dangers while trapped: fire and water both create a treacherous environment. The rush of water cascades through the surround sound system all around us. Falling debris nearly lands on Jack. He talks to Kennedy and says the whole building is about to come down. Kennedy tells him to just hang on, that help is on the way. Then he tells him about the control room behind a nearby wall that will buy him some time if he can make his way through it. The roar of saw blades rips through the surround sound system as the search and rescue guys attempt to gnaw their way through the tangles of rebar and fallen concrete slabs. With all the digital audio, we get a real sense of the cavernous doom hanging over Jack as debris continues falling. Despite his injuries, he starts tearing the wall down, refusing to give up just as he has refused to do so throughout his career. When the chapter moves back into the past this time, the scene shows Jack's little girl's birthday. In short scenes, we get the sense of how Jack is struggling to deal with the strain of his job and the commitments he has at home. Firemen constantly walk that thin high wire between those two demands.
Chapter 9 starts with another flashback, as shortly after four in the morning, the crew gets called to a fire. Inside the factory, the wheeze and hiss of industrial machinery circles left to right, right to left, and all around. Jack and Kennedy are inside the factory, looking for Tommy and realizing how dangerous the situation is. Steam ruptures with a huge gush and scalds Tommy with a rush of noise that blasts through the surround sound system. Jack’s hands are burned and he is reminded again how dangerous his job is. Jack visits Tommy in the hospital burn unit and we see the real downside of being that brave and facing those kinds of dangers. Inside the burn unit, Tommy tells Jack that the doctors put dead man's skin on him.
Still in the past in Chapter 10, Jack's emotional baggage overloads and he gets into a fight with colleague Lenny (Robert Patrick), who manages to keep himself emotionally distant from all the bad things that have happened. Jack sees Lenny with a woman that he knows is not his wife and it sets Jack off. They fight in the bar. Outside, Jack has a heart to heart talk with Captain Kennedy. The captain tells Jack it's time to ask himself if it's time to get out of the firehouse, if his own fear and worry have gotten to be too much for him to bear. Jack deals with his own fears. Later, the city is snowed in and they still roll on a fire call. Total panic sets in as Jack searches for young girl that is supposed to still be in the building. Even as he finds her, the fire grabs a second wind and spreads in a wild explosion. Together, Lenny and Jack save her, paving the way for the gut-wrenching film finale.
The special features part of the package offer a lot in the way of extras. "Everyday Heroes: Real Stories From Real Firefighters" is a nice addition to the movie, showing the guys who really do the job, as well as time they spend with their families. The movies can't help but glamorize and dramatize what these guys do on a daily basis because of story structure, but it's nice to see that they truly are so down to earth despite the requirements and hazards of those jobs. "The Making of Ladder 49" provides additional insight to what the actors had to learn and the lives they came to understand to a degree while making the film. Likewise, the audio commentary offered by director Jay Russell and editor Bud Smith gives additional insight into the choices that were made for the film. Strangely, the deleted scenes don't really offer anything to the movie and it is easy to see why they were cut. They really detract from the overall emotional impact of the film in its finished form.
"Ladder 49" is a story about heroes. With the PG-13 rating, it's family-friendly, though perhaps not for very young viewers due to the emotional intensity of the scenes. The movie is a definite keeper, one that will entertain and affect audiences, moving them through a gamut of emotions before leaving them exhausted. Travolta delivers a solid performance without stealing scenes. In fact, no one in the film goes over the top. Patrick does some of his best work ever in the film, portraying Lenny as a real person we can like as well as dislike. As a purchase or as a rental, people looking for a good, solid piece of drama are going to be immensely satisfied with "Ladder 49."