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Fireballs

Joaquin Phoenix rises from the ashes in 'Ladder 49'

By Richard von Busack

EVEN IF the fire doesn't exactly jump through the hoops as it did in Backdraft, Jay Russell's Ladder 49 is for the most part an engrossing and blessedly low-key fireman procedural. The adolescent joking around that takes place in the firehouse—the dickhead-bumping a la Jerry Bruckheimer—is never too sadistic. Robert Patrick is often genuinely funny as the crankiest and most prank-addicted of the men. Most of the risks play out in the sane, slow face of Joaquin Phoenix, as Jack Morrison. His 10 years with the Baltimore Fire Department are told in flashback while he's trapped inside the collapsed, flaming wreckage of a waterfront grain elevator. As his life flashes before his eyes, we see him progress from rookie to search-and-rescue man, under the leadership of a calm, bred-to-the-job captain (a cool-under-the-collar John Travolta).

Scriptwriter Lewis Colick obviously did a lot of research. Not everyone knows that aerial particles in a grain elevator are indeed quite explosive and have killed a number of workers over the years. The various fires that Morrison and his crew fight all have their own malign drama, their own personality. I guess everyone likes to watch a building on fire, and the assortment here is guaranteed to tickle any arsonist. The action begins with the nightscape of a five-alarm grain-elevator fire, looking like a castle in flames.

In the flashback, in a boarded-up slum row house, a seemingly routine blaze drops open a trap door, incinerating one of the crew. Phoenix does a clumsy Spider-Man act on a high-rise office building, with a hysterical man trapped on a ledge. The team comes in on a power plant, with a faulty generator waiting like a time bomb. Saved for last: a macabre wintertime apartment fire. The sequence is a beaut, from a rescued child pointing to where his baby-sitter is stuck (you can feel the firemen groaning; it's in a half-gutted turret on a Victorian brick building, right up at the top). When Morrison prowls through thick smoke, the sound of his respirator is the only thing on the soundtrack. Russell takes up the dynamics of a lurking killer movie as Morrison has to peer frantically past all the Christmas decorations to see where the fire's lurking—is it behind the door? Will it burst through the ceiling?

The ending is unfortunate. Russell tips off the finale too early by lingering over a big heroic moment. The uplifting final montage really seems like some executive's bad decision. The sequence is scored to a putrid inspirational song by Robbie Robertson, and it looks so much like MTV you expect to see a little white song-and-artist title on it when it's finished. Jacinda Barrett has the unenviable role of Linda, Jack's wife, who has to be a brake on the adventures, but she handles it smoothly. Phoenix's everyman performance may be called colorless, but modesty has its charm in an action movie. When he's talking to Linda about the lifesaving part and finds himself on the verge of boasting, he cuts back—"Itsa job," he murmurs. And Phoenix has one excellent old-school scene of trying to calm his child after a bad accident at work. As he reassures his son, we're not sure if he's lying to the child or to himself about how dangerous his job is.


Ladder 49 (PG-13; 115 min.), directed by Jay Russell, written by Lewis Colick, photographed by James L. Carter and starring Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta, opens Friday.


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From the September 29-October 5, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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