Reviewed by Peter
Veugelaers © 2005
- Take a pot shot but be warned.
Nearing death, his devoted wife and children have
feared for his safety in perilous situations. Now, their fears are realised. He
is a New York fire fighter imprisoned in a building ablaze. Will Jack Morrison’s
service for the community end tragically? If he dies, will his dedicated service
over ten years find favour with God?
As if we didn’t know already – the gospel song
playing on the soundtrack with the lyric, “shine your light on me”, and a
Catholic priest uttering something about service on earth finding acceptance
in heaven, well I’m sure he will enter the pearly gates. At least in
Ladder 49 mode. Once everything is said and done here, where the hero’s
trajectory is captured as mortality in masculine glory, you think to
yourself this wasn’t a surprise.
Taut in its patriotism but lacking in flair this fire
fighting rescue drama could have been a whole lot better and which works
It is the kind of movie which is not subtle in approach,
which does not understate the heroics of New York fire fighters written
before, according to imbd.com, terrorist attacks on the city. The lack of
subtly is one of Ladder 49’s dramatic flaws because the lives of
these brave people could have been better handled.
It is played along parallel storylines with a meagre
episodic plot involving the predicament of fire fighter Jack Morrison
(Joaquin Phoenix) interspersed with flashbacks which recount his career from
rookie status where rites of passage set a tone of comradely.
Phoenix buoys the drama in this character centred piece
with a sincere and empathetic performance and carries the human element well
particularly in relationship with John Travolta and Lucinda Barrett
John Travolta as his captain is charismatic, his father
figure role held a lot of potential underused where subtle clues imply
Travolta’s performance is the key to his character’s
understatement when he offers just enough of his character that more is
itchingly present but undisclosed. Barrett is also good considering her
sketchily written character, and these three actors believe in what they are
When involved with Phoenix’s character the emotional
thrust of the film is drawing the viewer in as Morison has been recognised
as a genuine family man in the midst of trouble. What will happen next? The
expectation is to resolve the current crisis and so satisfy the viewer’s
emotional involvement, but is nevertheless delayed gratification, and due
because of the need for a script rewrite. In the middle, the movie descends
into sentimentality and unnecessary material that diverts from the early
emotional build up, losing its impetus.
The screenplay by Lewis Colick held potential for a more
effectual structuring and ordering of plot from what looks messy. It could
have been shorter and polished with emphasis on developing Travolta’s
character and some other minor role and so enhance the dramatics and
characterisations. If I had my way, a major scene reconstruction please –
the material is there, only rearrange it with appropriate alterations into a
tightly structured effect.
Although the film is sincere and arguably humane we are
none the wiser for the experience. The ending is unexpected however, which
some may find a tearjerker, and which adds back a touch of emotion lost in
the middle of the movie.