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Jay Russell
Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke, Balthazar Getty, Tim Guinee
Writing Credits:
Lewis Colick

A bond forged by fire is never broken.

Academy Award nominated stars Joaquin Phoenix (Best Supporting Actor, Gladiator, 2000) and John Travolta (Best Actor, Pulp Fiction, 1994) ignite the intense action in this heroic tale of ordinary men with uncommon courage! As part of a tightly knit brotherhood of skilled firefighters, Jack Morrison (Phoenix) grows from inexperienced rookie to seasoned veteran as he faces a dangerous job that makes him a hero to strangers but often shortchanges his wife (Jacinda Barrett) and kids. Then, when he becomes trapped in the worst blaze of his career, the things Jack holds most important - family, duty, and courage come sharply into focus.

Box Office:
Opening Weekend
$22.088 million on 3260 screens.
Domestic Gross
$74.528 million.

Rated PG-13

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 115 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 3/8/2005

• Audio Commentary with Director Jay Russell and Editor Bud Smith
• “The Making of Ladder 49” Documentary
• “Everyday Heroes” Featurette
• Deleted Scenes
• Music Video
• Sneak Peeks
• THX Optimizer


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Ladder 49 (2004)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 23, 2005)

Take your pick - 2004’s Ladder 49 is either the kind of movie Hollywood was supposed to avoid after 9/11, or it was the sort of tale they planned to embrace. On one hand, pundits figured audiences would no longer have an appetite for movies with destruction and mayhem. On the other, everyone thought that filmgoers would love anything that glorified firefighters.

Neither proved to be true. As demonstrated by the success of flicks like The Day After Tomorrow, audiences still enjoy stories that depict stuff getting blowed up good. However, we’ve yet to see a successful movie about firefighters, and not many attempts have occurred. 49 didn’t burn up the charts, as it took in a decent but not great $74 million.

That lackluster gross may be due more to the film’s poor quality than any filmgoer aversion to the subject. At the start of 49, firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) gets trapped in a burning building during a risky rescue. As we watch attempts to extricate Jack, the movie cuts back to scenes of his past. These begin with his arrival at Baltimore’s Engine 33 as a rookie and his first meeting with Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta). Jack also encounters co-workers Ray Gauquin (Balthazar Getty) and brother Dennis (Billy Burke), Tommy Drake (Morris Chestnut), Don Miller (Kevin Daniels), Frank McKinney (Kevin Chapman) and Lenny Richter (Robert Patrick). They gently haze him and he becomes one of their ranks.

From there the flick basically covers Jack’s life as it leads up to his present predicament. Other notable events include his initial encounter with lovely Linda (Jacinda Barrett). They quickly fall in love, get married, and have kids. Along the way, a crewmember dies and Jack takes his place in a risky position. We see various personal dramas in Jack’s life as well as what happens at the firehouse.

Why do cops inspire so many strong films but firefighters only merit dreck like Ladder 49? The post-9/11 atmosphere doesn’t help matters, as it’s become almost un-American to utter a disparaging word toward their ranks. Although 49 doesn’t totally indulge in a relentlessly heroic tone, it also fails to present a look at the lives of firefighters that even remotely feels realistic.

49 satisfies as neither an action movie nor a character drama. From top to bottom, the personalities fail to elevate above the level of generic stereotypes. What drives them and makes them tick? The script, I guess, as the story presents no depth in the way it depicts the characters. They go about their lives, with all their happiness and tears, and never demonstrate a truly human moment. From our lead Jack on down, they act out of story necessity and only deliver bits that feel contrived and cliché.

Perhaps if the action sequences kicked some butt I wouldn’t care. Unfortunately, they seem just as banal as the character moments. The film’s structure acts as a forced attempt to inject urgency into the story. Non-linear plotting is great when it serves a purpose. In 49, we cut back and forth from Jack’s potential demise to his past for no discernible reason other than to ensure a consistent sense of tension.

Or attempted tension, as these sequences fail to create any emotion in the viewer. They should offer poignancy to the scenes in which we see Jack grow up, but they don’t. Instead, they act as little more than tacky plot devices.

49 also doesn’t present a concept or emotion it doesn’t telegraph. We get a bland score that flagrantly attempts to press all the usual buttons. It goes serious and orchestral during the dangerous moments, while it becomes peppy and jangly during the happier times. There’s not an original or creative cue to be found; it sounded like a computer created the score.

Even the filmmaking techniques are cliché and predictable. When a firefighter dies on the job, the tense scene back at the house goes with handheld camerawork in an attempt to depict urgency and realism. It fails, as it just looks like a move by someone trying to put their film school education to work. Textbook page 58: “handheld equals documentary feel!” Whenever the movie wants to depict edgier scenes, it goes with this technique, and it never comes across as natural or necessary. It’s always self-conscious and obvious.

Maybe if the actors didn’t look like they were totally bored with the material, things might work better. Unfortunately, they all give the impression that they’re there for the paycheck. Travolta’s been in that mode for a while, so his lackluster performance doesn’t come as a surprise. For some reason, I expect a little more from Phoenix. An actor with a lot of potential, he squanders his talents in lifeless movies like this. And when’d he get so fat? Did he think he was signed to play Jake La Motta?

All bland sentiment and no real drama, Ladder 49 feels like a chick flick take on firefighters. It comes across as a movie made by a committee. The flick plods through the usual predictable highs and lows but never creates a sense of believability or life.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio A-/ Bonus B

Ladder 49 appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although much of the movie looked great, some persistent edge enhancement created problems.

Those affected sharpness. Most of the time I thought the film presented reasonably solid definition, but the flick occasionally demonstrated moderate softness, especially in wider shots. That largely stemmed from the haloes that caused some distractions throughout the movie. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, though, and the print looked very clean. I noticed no signs of specks, marks or other defects.

Across the board, the film displayed excellent color reproduction. The flick used a natural palette that always looked great. All the tones appeared rich and full. Check out the lively greens in the St. Patrick’s Day scene for an example of the solid hues. Blacks were also deep and firm, but shadows could become somewhat murky. Low-light shots were decent at best, as they occasionally seemed moderately dense and muddy. Nonetheless, the main problem came from edge enhancement, and that issue knocked down my grade to a “B”.

On the other hand, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Ladder 49 proved to be consistently satisfying. Actually, Disney touts this as an “Enhanced Home Theater Mix”, something they’ve previously included in animated DVDs like Aladdin and The Lion King. I can’t compare the “Enhanced Home Theater Mix” of 49 to its theatrical audio, though, since the DVD only includes the former.

In any case, I really liked this track, as it provided a very immersive and involving experience. Of course, the fire sequences created the best moments. These used all five channels well to present a great feeling of being in the action. Flames and destruction cropped up all around the room to surround us in the material. Quieter scenes featured a nice sense of atmosphere, and the music presented good stereo presence. It was those excellent action bits that knocked this track into “A-“ territory.

Of course, the movie required good audio quality to earn that grade, and the mix delivered. Some semi-awkward dubbing occurred, but dialogue usually blended fairly well with the action, and the lines always remained concise and without edginess. Music was smooth and bright.

Effects fared best, as the different elements demonstrated great definition and clarity. During the louder scenes, bass response really kicked into high gear. The movie featured strong low-end material that always sounded deep and firm. Overall, Ladder 49 presented a terrific auditory experience.

As we head to the supplements, we open with an audio commentary from director Jay Russell and editor Bud Smith. Both men sit together for their running, screen-specific chat. Only one problem mars the track: dead air. Sporadic gaps pop up occasionally and last too long.

Otherwise, this is a terrific commentary, as the men dig into the material with gusto. We get notes about casting and the actors, shooting in Baltimore, challenges creating realistic fires and other technical elements, the score and the involvement of Robbie Robertson, structure and editorial choices, and attempts to tell real stories. The pair get into pretty much everything you might want to hear, and they do so in a lively, energetic manner that makes the discussion especially involving. I may have hated the movie, but I really enjoyed this excellent commentary.

Next comes a documentary titled The Making of Ladder 49. This 21-minute and 27-second program offers the typical combination of movie snippets, shots from the set, and interviews. We hear from Russell, producer Casey Silver, executive producer Armyan Bernstein, writer Lewis Colick, firefighters Lt. Mark Yant and Battalion Chief Leonard Zinck, stunt coordinator GA Aguilar, special effects coordinator Larry Fioritto, visual effects supervisor Peter Donen, production designer Tony Burrough, supervising sound editor Kelly Cabral, supervising sound mixers Andy Koyanna and Chris Carpenter, sound effects editor Jason King, and actors John Travolta, Joaquin Phoenix, Jacinda Barrett, Kevin Chapman, Balthazar Getty, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, and Tim Guinee,

The program covers locations and why they chose Baltimore, casting and the actors’ training at the Fire Academy, shooting the fire sequences, sets, and sound design. This offers a good overview of important subjects, but it doesn’t look at them with great depth. The material from the set provides the best elements, and the last chapter’s look at some technical aspects proves illuminating. Unfortunately, much of the time the comments seem designed simply to impress us with the filmmakers’ attempts at authenticity, and this earnest tone gets old.

After this we find a featurette called Everyday Heroes. It fills 13 minutes and 41 seconds with notes from Travolta, firefighter Lt. Donald Schafer, Lt. Scott Folderauer, EVD Glenn Folderauer, EVD Michael Heiler, paramedic Kara Simpson, Captain Jeff Jakelski, EMS Captain Laurie Shiloh, and spouses Maria Heiler, Faye Schafer, and Cindy Folderauer. As one might expect, it presents a tribute to real firefighters. We hear about why they do the job, how it affects them, and what chances they take.

I definitely like the idea behind “Heroes”, and it includes a few stirring moments, especially when the firefighters discuss how the job impacts upon their home lives. Unfortunately, most of the program comes across as little more than generic information and plaudits. Yeah, firefighters deserve accolades, but I’d like to get more of a real feeling for their lives and work and not just a vague overview.

Five deleted scenes follow. When viewed together via the “Play All” option, these last a total of 14 minutes and nine seconds. “Lunch Room Conversations” looks at the firefighters hanging together while they wait for an alarm, while “Jack and Linda’s First Date follows their return to his apartment. “Captain Tony Arrives” brings in a new character and shows the firefighters’ reactions to him. “Ray’s Subplot” deals with problems connected to that character, and “9-11” shows Jack, Linda and the others as they react to that day’s events. The last one’s probably the most interesting; it’s not a great clip, but given that most of us still think of 9/11 when we see firefighters, it’s a logical scene to include. The others mostly pad out secondary characters or themes.

We get a music video for Robbie Robertson’s performance of “Shine Your Light”. It combines shots of Robertson as he lip-synchs in various Baltimore locations with movie clips and new images of actor Jacinda Barrett as she also wanders Charm City and emotes. It’s more interesting than most music videos for songs from movies, but not by a lot.

The disc opens with some ads. We get previews for National Treasure, Home Improvement Season Two, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. These also appear in the Sneak Peeks area with promos for Lost and The Golden Girls.

Lastly, the DVD features the THX Optimizer. Also found on many other DVDs, this purports to help you set up your system for the best reproduction of both picture and sound, ala stand-alone programs such as Video Essentials. I’ve never tried the Optimizer since I’m happy with my settings, but if you don’t own something such as Essentials, the Optimizer may help you improve picture and audio quality.

At times, I thought Ladder 49 looked like a purposeful attempt to make a cliché movie about firefighters. It doesn’t include a single honest or original moment, as it instead substitutes mawkish sentiment and cheap drama. The DVD offers generally positive picture quality marred mainly by some edge enhancement. The audio excels, however, and the extras are highlighted by an excellent audio commentary. Despite the mostly good quality of the release, the movie itself is too weak for me to recommend it.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3043 Stars Number of Votes: 23
3 3:
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