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Ladder 49

Starring Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta; Jacinda Barrett
Screenplay by Lewis Colick
Directed by Jay Russell

IN SHORT: Dumb flashback construction defeats what could be an emotionally arresting story. [Rated PG-13 for intense fire and rescue situations, and for language. 115 minutes]

Since we know there is a demographic of readership that only looks at the summary and rating, we're going to do this for them: If the thought of being trapped in a fire -- with only a last second rescue by a fire-suit clad Joaquin Phoenix kicking down your door to carry you to safety -- makes your toes curl, then you must get online (or get to a vid store) to see Ladder 49.

Now we're going to tell the rest of you why this isn't a good film. It's a matter of structure, which we could blame on screenwriter Lewis Colick but, ultimately, could have been fixed in the editing room by director Jay Russell. And that's a whopper of a shame because, removed from the flashback structure and put back into linear time, the pieces have all the makings of a great sit.

It has been several years since a film has focused on firefighters, often and properly labeled the Bravest Men (and sometimes Women) in public service. You will never see Cranky taking potshots at any man in uniform regardless of our feelings about the movie. In the case of Ladder 49, the fact that we sit for 200+ movies a year for the past ten years gets in the way of a story structure that almost screams what its ending is going to be from the word go. That being said, we urge y'all not to think to much about what could happen as you lose yourself in a terrific performance by actor Joaquin Phoenix.

Had you missed the beginning, and we urge that you do, you would meet Phoenix as Jack Morrison, first seen as a probationary firefighter in the Baltimore FD. In a story that covers at least a decade of time we see the rituals of bonding in the firehouse and his developing friendship with fellow fighters -- we'll come back to that -- as he courts and wins lovely wife Linda (Jacinda Barrett) and raises a matched set of cute kidlets. While other firefighters get to fulfill necessary emotional plot points, the only other (officer) the script pays attention to is Jack's boss, Chief Kennedy (John Travolta).

That covers material covered in flashback, as the Bravest of Baltimore battle to save a grainery that is ablaze. Listen carefully to understand how all the airborne bits of wheat can produce a situation in which fire can turn them into the equivalent of dynamite and then let your film student brains figure out all you need to know. Had this film not been built in flashback, its emotional power would have increased tenfold -- and this without telling you what happens to who or how bad that "what" is. The structure of Ladder 49 leads it to shoot itself in the foot. Y'all are smart enough to figure it out.

Our femme friend, on the other hand, couldn't leave her seat when it was done. We chalk this up to the allure of Phoenix and that drops Ladder 49 right into the dateflick category of ratings.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Ladder 49, he would have paid . . .


Dateflick ratings are normally a flat $5. We're giving props to the special effects department for great pyro work. It's a guy thing. Take a date. Let her swoon. Men, plant for the fireworks.

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