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Judy Thorburn's Movie Reviews

Ladder 49

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Judy Thorburn

Ladder 49

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“LADDER 49” IGNITES THE SCREEN

Not since Ron Howard’s 1991 film Backdraft, has a movie taken the viewers on such a riveting look inside the dangerous work of the brave men who risk their lives on a daily basis to save people they don’t know from burning buildings. We call them firefighters, but they are much more than that.  They are a special breed of human being who deserves praise and honor for their undeniable acts of heroism. Can we ever forget how, on 9/11, some New York City firemen responded to their call of duty and sacrificed their lives, in a selfless effort to save the victims of terrorism in the World Trader Center Twin Towers?   That was a major event that made headline news all over the world.  But, for all the people who live the life of a firefighter, the risk versus reward is a continuous factor with ramifications reaching far beyond their job and into their private lives of home and family.  Ladder 49 delves into the world of a Baltimore Engine Company with the focus on one man who has chosen to “run in (to a fire) when others are running out”.

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Ladder 49 tells the story of an extraordinary fireman, Jack Morrison, played by Joaquin Phoenix, in perhaps his best ever screen performance.  We meet him as he and his engine crew are trying to control a fire in a burning warehouse. After being separated from his buddies, an explosion causes the floor beneath Jack to collapse and sends him falling to the bottom where he is trapped among the debris and surrounding flames.  Hurt and alone, Jack is left with only the hope of being saved while memories of his past fill his head. It is through the use of these flashbacks that Jack’s story unfolds and we are able to share the events from his life that led up to this moment.

It begins with the recollection of Jack’s first day on the job where every enthusiastic, but innocent rookie like himself, must undergo a harmless initiation by his prankster firehouse cohorts.  This sets the stage for the audience to understand the ongoing camaraderie and strong bonds of friendships that develops between the firefighters, even though, at times different personalities collide. Also tracked is Jack’s relationship with wife Linda (Jacinda Barrett) from their first meeting in a supermarket, through their romantic courtship and enduring marriage. Conflicting emotions take hold of Jack, as he is torn between the amazing feeling he gets by helping people and saving lives, and coming to grips with the very real dangers that the job entails. These come to the forefront as Jack stands by helplessly watching as one teammate dies and another becomes gravely injured while on different fire calls.

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What writer Lewis Colick has accomplished so well is an amazing script that covers a lot of ground.  It is rare that we get to see a mixture of deeply moving story with intense action that doesn’t sacrifice one for the other. But Ladder 49 does manage to evenly blend those two superbly. John Travolta shares top billing with Joaquin Phoenix, but this is Joaquin’s vehicle all the way.  Phoenix’s Jack is the centerpiece, but Travolta is honorably supportive as the engine company’s Captain, Mike Kennedy, a strong father figure who looks after his guys, keeps them in line when they get too rough with each other, and is their rock that uplifts them in times of tragedy. Other great support, as their fellow fire fighters include Billy Burke (best friend Dennis), Morris Chestnut (Tommy), Robert Patrick (Lenny), and Ray (Balthazar Getty). The Flick Chicks Movie Reviews Film Critics DVD Video Cinema

Ladder 49 excels on so many levels to make it one of the best films of the year.  Not only is this a moving story, with a wonderful cast, director Jay Russell (My Dog Skip, Tuck Everlasting), brings the fire up close and personal as if we are right there with it in our face and feeling the smoldering heat against our skin.

Thanks to the behind the scenes technical wizards, the action sequences, visual effects, and cinematography, are spectacular.  I was on the edge of my seat watching how cinematographer James L. Carter used amazing camera angles to dramatize Jack’s rescue attempt as he dangled from a rope to save a man standing on the ledge of a high-rise as a helicopter hovered near by. Also, the explosions made me jump and the smoke made me want to gasp for air.  Heightening the excitement is the accompanying, pulsating music by William Ross.

Ladder 49 captures so many aspects of a firefighter’s life, including the special brotherhood shared by the men who chose this as their “job”.  This film is a wonderful homage to a special breed of human being and to honor their service. It will tear at your heart, sometimes make you laugh, and often make you cry.   But, ultimately it is a movie experience that will burn in your soul for a long time.