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Ladder 49  

Review: written August 2007

A film about why men run into burning buildings

You can just tell that this movie has oodles of good intention oozing from every pore, and taken as a whole, it does work as a tribute to the noble profession of firefighter. However, the story arc fails to cover any new ground, and cannot really be described in any way as multi-layered or three dimensional - what you see is what you get. Having said that, the director treats these otherwise predictable scenes in a sensitive way that involves you more than you might expect.

What you do get, is Joaquin Phoenix' character injured and trapped in a large burning building. As he waits for his rescue, we see his life unfold through flashbacks to key events, starting from when he first walks into the fire station as a probationary fire officer. Told just that about the movie, you can probably guess where it goes... boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy has first kid, boy has second kid, boy has bad things happen to colleagues, boy wonders if he is in the right job considering he now has family, boy realizes he loves his job and stays. It's not particularly clever, and yet, at the end of the movie you will have an appreciation for the life of a fireman in a typical blue collar environment, which was evidently the films goal in the first place. John Travolta plays the father figure Captain of the station, adding little depth to the role, while Joaquin Phoenix does a passable job, gaining plaudits at least for his willingness to get right into the thick of the action and look the part. Apparently after training he became an honorary member of the firefighting team he trained with, even getting their tattoo.

If anything else raises the film from mediocrity, it is the firefighting scenes. Not just that that they have been created realistically, but that they have a real flavour of realism about them - these smack of realistic situations for firefighters, and not scenes that are chosen purely for dramatic value. The effects thankfully shy away from cgi, and the sound mix helps add to a feeling of being `inside' the fire. Best of all, the movie does not rely on these scenes to keep your interest, but they become part of the character drama.

All in all, a modest success, but one that somehow you can't help feeling should have had more to it, given the talent involved. What it does achieve, is tackling not an action movie, but a sensitive character study, and why a man will run into a burning building, when everyone else is coming out.

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