Scaling new heights of tastelessness, Jay Russell's slow-burning melodrama Ladder 49 masquerades as a reverential tribute to the noble firefighter while lazily exploiting a moviegoing public still coming to grips with the trauma of 9/11. Joaquin Phoenix squanders his talent, playing an impossibly nice guy who "runs into burning buildings when everyone else is running out," but the ingratiating bat of his eyelashes isn't enough to fan the flames of this smouldering slagheap of a movie.
For the first few minutes it looks as though something genuinely dramatic might happen when Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself trapped in a burning warehouse. Sadly all hopes are dashed as he flashes back to rose-tinted days when the guys got up to crazy japes and a drunken Chief Kennedy (John Travolta) staggered about in his underpants - oh, the laughs they had! Then there's Linda (Jacinda Barrett), the woman he married after a chance encounter at the local supermarket, blah, blah, blah...
"FAILS TO PAINT AN HONEST HUMAN PORTRAIT"
Jack's life slowly unfolds and with each new leaf grows more banal. A few acts of heroism stand out - like dangling from a skyscraper by a bit of old rope - but as the hazards increase, Jack only becomes nicer and more dull. He tousles his son's hair and worries about leaving him fatherless, but the all-American, chest-swelling tone of the film means there's no genuine dilemma; Jack will continue to fight fires as sure as mom bakes apple pie.
In trying so desperately to convey what gosh-darn good people firefighters are, director Russell fails to paint an honest human portrait. Travolta merely functions as a sounding board for Jacks' anxieties, ready with a slap on the back and a mindless platitude. But even more offensive than its stupefying simplicity, is the willingness of the filmmakers to scrape the emotional wounds left by the fall of The Word Trade Center. Step away, there's nothing to see.