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Ladder 49

An Over Earnest Ode to America's Firefighters

Ladder 49 is an aggressively earnest love letter to America's firefighters, a series of big moments separated by jovial interludes in which the men of the company establish themselves as rugged heroes by day, drunken party animals by night. They work hard and they play hard, and perhaps, as the film suggests, that is the only way for them to cope with the grim reality that every trip into the inferno might be their last.

In Sam Raimi's For Love of the Game, Kevin Costner played a middle-aged major leaguer looking back over the course of his career while tossing a perfect game against the New York Yankees. In Ladder 49, director Jay Russell (My Dog Skip) employs that same formula to more compelling effect. Jake Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) is a veteran firefighter leading a mission into a 20-story high-rise blaze who finds himself trapped amid the burning rubble after a dramatic rescue. With that, the flashbacks begin.

As we soon learn, Jake is a bland throwback to the strong, silent leading men of yesteryear: he is an empty vessel, defined by his muscles, his boyish charm and his oft-stated desire to help people. There is little depth to his character, and the fact that Jake is the least interesting member of Baltimore's Ladder 49 division leaves a vacuum at the film's emotional core. Phoenix is a talented actor -- his grand-theft-movie performance in Gladiator proved that -- but he's hard-pressed to breathe life into this simple-minded caricature of the All-American hero.

Luckily, he's surrounded by a team of good-natured caricatures, from the resolutely noble Chief Kennedy (John Travolta) and the philandering bad boy Lenny (Robert Patrick) to Linda (Jacinda Barrett), Jake's trophy wife who fears that his daredevil stunts might one day end in tragedy.

Her concerns are well-founded. Jake's rookie initiation is filled with practical jokes, marathon trips to the local Irish pub and even a marching stint in the St. Patrick Day's parade. Indeed, Ladder 49 is a tight-knit unit of wild and crazy guys, imaginative types who belt out a loud, off-key rendition of the Ohio Players' "Fire" at Jake and Linda's wedding. Before long, though, the party ends on a sour note, as a series of job-related accidents force Jake to confront the lethal nature of his work.

The rest of Ladder 49 centers on Jake's struggle to balance his responsibilities as a husband and father with his professional duties, and while his dilemma is compelling -- the travails facing any firefighter resonate, particularly the wake of Sept. 11 -- the drama is defused by the film's lackluster approach to its material. These are stock characters thrown into situations that are treated with all the imagination of a TV Movie of the Week. (Though let's be honest -- at least two television programs, NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO's The Wire, have documented the trials and tribulations of Baltimore's civil servants in far more clever fashion.)

To the credit of a savvy veteran cast, Ladder 49 is never boring. Phoenix and Travolta resist the natural temptation to overact, and Billy Burke, as Jake's best friend Dennis, lends some much-needed deviousness to the proceedings. But even a crafty cast and a series of awe-inspiring explosions can't rescue a maudlin tale so overwrought and so obvious.

Stars: 2.5 out of 5