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Up in Smoke

Baltimore is the Hottest Part of the Flimsy, Fluffy, Semifun Ladder 49


Hott: Joaquin Phoenix (top) doesn't have to stretch too much to play a brooding, hunky firefighter in Ladder 49.

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 9/29/2004

If television and movies have it right, Baltimore’s a town where everyone is either employed as a cop, a firefighter, or a crab-cake preparer. It’s as if no one here aspires to be, say, a film critic for an alternative weekly newspaper. No matter. Ladder 49 proves we look good when we burn, baby, burn, even when we’re only backdrop for a work of multiplex bubblegum.

Jack Morrison (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is a rookie firefighter trapped at the bottom of a flaming warehouse (played by the empty ADM silo complex in Locust Point). Smashed up in a nasty fall, he can do nothing but . . . reflect. The day he came to the firehouse and the guys all played practical jokes on him. His first day at the front of the hose. Meeting that pretty girl (Jacinda Barrett, flat and nothing) in the Sav-A-Lot. Marrying her. Starting a family. A fatal fire. A funeral for a friend. The scene with the wife saying, “I don’t want you to get hurt.” The scene with the kids saying, “I don’t want you to get hurt.” The scene with the boss saying, “Maybe you should take a break for a while.” The scene where he gazes off into the distance and gets misty about why he loves his job. And through it all, his second family, the guys of his firehouse, dig a hole through the wreckage to come save him.

But to describe the chronology of how Morrison came to lie in mortal peril is to miss the point. The point of firefighter movies is seeing flames, lots of them, and the pyrotechnic team is not stingy with the money shots here. Buildings explode in conflagrations, collapse in cinders, and choke with dark smoke as the firefighters of Ladder 49 enact one perilous rescue after another, including a particularly Space Mountain sequence where Morrison must rappel off an office building to rescue a man on the ledge. It was a wise decision to tell the story in flashback, because chronologically Ladder 49’s story line wouldn’t be gripping enough. But the fire scenes are fun, and there’s plenty of them to break up the not-so-successful parts, like when people have feelings or interactions. Not unlike a real firefighter’s life, the film consists of long stretches of routine interrupted by sudden, frantic action.

Phoenix’s Morrison is inarticulate, simple, and tender—think Stanley Kowalski’s sweet, schlubby brother—and convincingly makes the journey from eager kid to heavy-hearted family man. Also a standout is Robert Patrick (most famous as the machine-cool, metrosexual android in Terminator 2¨, nearly unrecognizable as a gritty, gruff firehouse veteran. Unfortunately, John Travolta as the fire chief, like all his roles of late, is inauthentic and gimmicky.

And in many ways, so is the script. Sure, firefighting is dangerous work, the movie makes clear, but except for one bad burn, everyone politely incinerates off-camera or suffers not so much as a sunburn. The script squeezes as much pathos as possible out of the heroic anonymity and thankless nature of firefighting. And that would be fine if there was some level of realism—not grit, but soul—to these men’s lives. Any story about firefighters begs the question: What sane person elects to run into a burning building? These characters do so because they’re motivated not by their courage but by their screenwriter. That keeps Ladder 49¡from ever rising above the ranks of big-E Entertainment, where every moment is finely calibrated by committee and wrung out for maximum emotional manipulation.

And finally, Christ, hon, daon’t naobiddy got a Bawlmer accent? At one point, some crazy woman even answers the door with a Bronx slur—unfergibable. And all the extras look better than normal, as if everyone in Baltimore got a good night’s sleep and a flattering hairdo. But hey, there’s Precious the Skateboard Dog, and Mayor O’Malley, and probably someone you know in the background. Christ, hon, what more yew need?

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