It would be easy to dismiss Ladder 49 as Backdraft made spiffier with the benefit of computer-generated effects to give the raging fires extra-digital rage.
As good as it was, Backdraft was ultimately about the thrilling special effects of the fire and the arson-mystery possibilities flickering off from it. And though Ladder 49 has intense, unsettling firefighting scenes, it’s more about the guys who charge into burning buildings and why they do it.
After all, with movies like My Dog Skip and 2002’s Tuck Everlasting to his credit, director Jay Russell hardly seems like a candidate for any sort of blockbuster.
He brings intuitive direction to the human story of Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), whom we meet at the beginning as he charges into a terrifying fire at a towering Baltimore warehouse. It’s a 10-minute sequence easily rivaling any of the most hair-raising scenes of Backdraft.
Following a dramatic rescue effort, the foundation beneath him collapses Jack, dropping him down several floors and trapping him as the fire grows. In flashback, as his crew battles increasingly difficult circumstances to save him, we see how Jack grew from a green probationary fireman to a risk-taker with a reason.
Though he is not out for pure visual spectacle, Russell accomplishes what TV series like Rescue Me cannot — filming easy-to-follow firefighting scenes with incredible suspense and unease. (It makes the occasional scene of disorientation all the more panicking.)
All the while, his point-of-view and close-up shots for Jack provides a first-hand look at the alternation of fear and excitement he’s feeling in his first days on the job.
And Phoenix, as supreme a chameleon to his generation of actors as Sean Penn is to his, immediately sells us on the appeal of the work to Jack. The believable boyishness, coupled with a grounded realization of the dangers he faces, tethers the audience to his story.
His isn’t the only character Ladder 49 takes the time to get to know. In what has to be the only performance of note from any former reality-TV star, Jacinda Barrett (The Real World: London) brings gravity to her role as Jack’s wife, Linda. Conversations between her and Phoenix echo moments and character beats that have come before, and serve as nice grace notes.
The ensemble of fellow firefighters is also well cast, and the word “ensemble” definitely includes how John Travolta fits into the film as Jack’s firehouse boss, Mike Kennedy.
Travolta’s nostrils have finally gotten wise to the stench surrounding his starring roles of recent years. His second-fiddle status here gives his character the breathing room it needs, as Jack’s two-kids-and-a-wife family takes on surrogate status for Mike with great subtlety.
Ladder 49 is filled with the sort of earnest heroics that are a far from the cynical nuance of firefighter deconstruction on Rescue Me. But it works its own level, as its own project — one that balances the dilemma of human instinct to make a meaningful life for someone who’s in a job where keeping one’s life is, at best, a fragile hope.