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By Rick Kisonak | October 4, 2004

On September 11th, the sacrifices and courageous actions of New York firefighters elevated the profession in the hearts and minds of their countrymen. Overnight they became the homefront equivalent of war heroes. Many movies have been made about blazes and the men who battle them but “Ladder 49” is the first made since the terrorist attacks and, prior to seeing it, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it would offer a thoughtful, convincing portrait of the lifestyle or simply exploit the nation’s newfound appreciation of the people who elect to live it.

It was worse than I ever could have imagined. As written by Lewis Colick and directed by Jay (“Tuck Everlasting”) Russell, the movie is shameless to a degree that borders on the offensive. Joaquin Phoenix, who earlier this year gave “The Village” most of what little dramatic credibility it had, is powerless to redeem this pandering three hankie hokum. He plays a Baltimore fireman whose unit rushes into a burning warehouse in the picture’s opening scene. No sooner has he located a victim and lowered him to safety than the floor beneath him gives way sending him plummeting several levels into a pit of cement boulders and twisted metal. The rest of the movie is divided between the desperate efforts of his buddies to rescue him and flashbacks tracking his evolution from freshfaced rookie to seasoned ace a family man.

The flashbacks are the hardest to take. Don’t even think about going anywhere near this picture if you’re diabetic. Life at the station house is presented as an endless series of pranks and high jinks. John Travolta turns in the least interesting performance of his career in the role of the squad’s chief. Between fires, his job appears to consist primarily of maintaining an Up With People-meets-“Animal House” atmosphere. He presides over an initiation rite, for example, in which new members of the team are fooled into confessing to a fake priest when they first report for duty. One day Phoenix is surprised when a large goose bursts from his locker (“Good one, guys!”).

Nights are a nonstop festival of fraternity spent at a neighborhood bar. I haven’t seen this much heavy drinking in a movie since “Leaving Las Vegas” but Russell directs these scenes as though he were shooting a commercial for The Olive Garden. Songs are sung, jokes are told, pregnancies are announced-everybody’s one big happy family.

Meanwhile back at the warehouse, Phoenix lies in a crumpled heap. When he regains consciousness, he radios Travolta and reports that he’s “pretty broken up.” A great deal of time passes without the fallen hero shifting his body leading the viewer to conclude that his injuries have immobilized him. So it comes as a goose-in-the-locker level shock when Travolta consults blueprints of the building, suggests that his comrade tunnel through a brick wall to an interior room and Phoenix suddenly transforms into a human drill sending hunks of brick and mortar flying.

The impression the movie gives is that Colick couldn’t decide whether he wanted to write a button-pushing band of brothers saga or a tale of doomed romance and so wrote both. Jacinda Barrett gives a dewey eyed performance as Phoenix’s soul mate, a working class girl he picks up in a supermarket and goes on to marry. In a directional display that’s as schizophrenic as it is plagiarizing, Russell plays “Titanic”-style music almost every time Barrett and Phoenix share a scene and mirrors a famous sequence from that film by having the couple cruise the streets of the city while perched ecstatically on the back of a firetruck. No doubt it’s mere coincidence that Phoenix’s character, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s, is named Jack.

Empty headed sentimentality cynically marketed as tribute, “Ladder 49” doesn’t celebrate or honor America’s firefighters. How can it when the film doesn’t even take place on the same planet? The men in this movie are little more than beer ad cliches going through Ford tough motions as though trapped in a bad country music video. There’s not a realistic moment or character or performance in the picture.

The risks firefighters take, like the sacrifices they make every day, are all too real. They deserve our thanks, our respect and infinitely better movie treatment than this.

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