The three guys walking out of the preview for "Ladder 49" ahead of me weren't in uniform, but you could tell they were firefighters by their knowledgeable chatter. So, guys, I asked, how does "Ladder" compare to Ron Howard's 1991 "Backdraft," the last major Hollywood movie on this topic and by all reports a sore subject in firehouses across the land? "No comparison," replied one of the men. "This one got it right."
And so it does, in a manner that's predictable, square, and honorable all at once. By focusing tightly on one Baltimore unit's experiences over a decade, "Ladder 49" does its characters the service of simply letting them go about their work. The film paints these men as inarticulate blue-collar gods and ultimately it worships them into a corner; if you want firefighters with the acrid snap of life, you're probably better off watching Denis Leary and company on the Fox Network's "Rescue Me."
Still, screenwriter Lewis Colick and director Jay Russell attend to the nuts and bolts of firefighting so we don't have to -- firemen don't rush into burning buildings with open jackets and no breathing apparatus as they did in "Backdraft" -- and there aren't any crazed arsonists or other suspense tropes. Sept. 11 isn't mentioned once, and it doesn't have to be; that event has forever weighed down our awareness of what these men do. An establishing shot of a burning 20-story building is all it takes to stir our memories.
In that building lies Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), wounded where a collapsed floor has left him and listening to the radio babble of his fellow firefighters coming to the rescue. As he drifts in and out of consciousness, his life unfolds in rather helpful chronological order.
We see him as a rookie "probie" assigned to the firehouse as a "pipe-man" (the guy who holds the hose); we get the genial hazing from the guys: Captain Michael Kennedy (John Travolta), easy-going Tommy (Morris Chestnut), loudmouth Lenny (Robert Patrick), ladies' man Dennis (Billy Burke), and so on. The camaraderie is edgy and affectionate, the drinking plentiful and never much of a problem, and the women unstated partners in an unstated war.
Over the course of the years, shy Jack woos and weds Linda (Jacinda Barrett, ex of MTV's "Real World" and here scrumptiously believable); kids arrive, compromises are made, and Linda never seems to age much, yet you get a sense of a woman coming to terms with the notion that any day might make her a widow.
"Ladder 49" initially looks as if it's going to be a lot more pious than it turns out to be, although the sap still rises whenever William Ross's glutinous score, the single worst element of the film, turns up the volume. These characters are meant to be simple (and they're effectively played as such by the cast), but often enough that devolves into the simplistic.
Worse, the screenwriting and editing give the game away time and again. Here's the scene where one of the men dies; here's where Jack has doubts; here's where Captain Mike gives the firehouse pep talk -- you can see it all coming from the first shot of each sequence. And what about the rest of a fireman's life: the false alarms, the medical emergencies, the weird and minor day-to-day stuff that roots men in a community and characters in a film?
Still, the fire scenes play out with smoky chaos, and Russell conveys the seesaw of nerve and fear firefighters must feel. In "Backdraft," fire was a high-tech villain, but here it's just an element, unfeeling and ruinous, and that feels about right. By the end of "Ladder 49," the sense of sacrifice is palpable, and that's about right, too. As more than one character reminds us, these are men who run into burning buildings when you and I are busy running out. All the boilerplate in Hollywood can't change that.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.