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Ladder 49 (12A)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: One

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: On Location. Fire Academy: Training The Actors. Anatomy Of A Scene: The Warehouse Fire. Why We Do It: Real stories from real fire fighters. Deleted scenes. 'Shine Your Light' music video. Audio commentary.

CASEY Silver, the producer of Ladder 49, claims he wanted to make a firefighting movie 'in an unsentimental, honest way that would celebrate the dignity and nobility of these guys'. You have to wonder, then, what went wrong.

Designed as a film to showcase the heroism, bravery and sacrifices made by firefighters in the modern era (particularly post-9/11), Ladder 49 ends up being a flag-waving, sickly and shamelessly sentimental saga that thoroughly squanders the good intentions surrounding it.

The film begins as Joaquin Phoenix's dedicated Baltimore firefighter, Jack Morrison, becomes trapped in a burning building, while his colleagues, led by John Travolta's paternal chief, Mike Kennedy, race against time to save him.

In the ensuing couple of hours, Morrison reflects on his life and career, from fresh-faced rookie, through to caring father and husband, who comes to realise an impending sense of his own mortality.

Needless to say, what follows is pretty much a check-list of firefighting cliches, from the obvious loss of colleagues, through to the death-defying rescues and the larger-than-life antics of the men who serve at the station.

And it begins brightly, effortlessly tapping into the camaraderie that exists within the fire station, as well as the pressures and stresses that come with the job.

Director, Jay Russell, develops a keen sense of the bond that exists between the firemen, from the prank-playing that adds some much-needed humour, to the concern that exists whenever they are placed in harm's way.

And he also draws terrific performances from all of the main players, with Phoenix, as ever, standing out as the increasingly conflicted Morrison, whose passion for the job must eventually be balanced out with his responsibility as a father and husband.

Indeed, such was the actor's devotion to getting his performance right, that he has since been informed by the Baltimore Fire Academy that he could always come back and take a job with the Fire Department itself should he want to.

Likewise other members of the cast, whose dedication to ensuring the authenticity of their performances was second to none - Jacinda Barrett, who plays Morrison's wife, is herself a former firefighter's daughter, while another co-star, Tony Corrigan, was awarded a citation from the Baltimore City Fire Commissioner for finding and rescuing a woman from a five-alarm blaze during training. He has subsequently become a volunteer fireman.

The fires which punctuate the movie are also impressively staged, providing viewers with a genuine sense of peril throughout, and ensuring that the essential wow-factor is present.

It's all the more disappointing, then, that the film itself ultimately goes down in flames because of its inability to keep hold of its emotions. Everyone knows that the role of a fireman is one which encompasses bravery and sacrifice, and very few can forget the images of the men who gave their lives trying to save others during the World Trade Center tragedy.

But Russell cannot resist piling on the sentiment in such a heavy-handed and insulting fashion that the film eventually becomes as choking as the thick black smoke which fills the rescue sequences.

Its finale is particularly overdone and is clearly designed to bring out the hankies, but feels so forced and sickening that viewers have every right to feel manipulated instead.

As such, it undermines the good work put in by all concerned and ends up becoming another overblown Hollywood spectacle that is undone by its own excess.

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