Most people find it hard to name a better fire-fighting movie than Backdraft, but that is partially due to the fact that there isn't actually that many fire-fighting movies out there. I suppose that you could consider The Towering Inferno, but that was really more like a disaster movie. Ladder 49, on the other hand, is a movie dedicated to fire fighters. Commencing with a daring rescue attempt on the twelfth floor of a building engulfed in flames, we flashback to the life history of heroic fire fighter Jack Morrison. We start right back on his first day on the job, as a rookie posted to the Baltimore Fire Station that houses the titular Ladder 49 fire truck. We follow him as he goes through his first fire, his first true love, the friendships and bonds he makes on the way to becoming a veteran, and the lives lost. The story basically encapsulates the entire working life of a typical all-American hero fire fighter, but focuses on the bitter truth and genuine courage rather than the glossy Hollywood picture that is generally painted.This is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, it comes across as a nice little homage to all the real fire fighters risking their lives out there (and it is supposedly based on a true story), but on the other hand all those Backdraft fans out there are, frankly, going to be somewhat bored by the lack of action and the sheer volume of montages that populate the movie - designed to cover the years in this fire fighter's life. Luckily the action that does take place is of a high standard, with every fire getting bigger and every confrontation becoming more dangerous. At the same time, the tension is maintained by constant cuts back to the present day and Morrison's plight during the rescue attempt. This is a good technique that goes some way towards keeping the movie going.Above all though, the cast really hold the film together. Joaquin Phoenix's (The Village, Buffalo Soldiers) performance as the lead fire fighter, Morrison, once again proves that he is more than capable of driving a movie, and he is ably supported by John Travolta (Get Shorty, Face/Off), abnormally taking a backseat to the action to play his Captain, and mentor, Mike Kennedy. As members of his crew we get Robert Patrick (T-2, The X-Files, Copland), Morris Chestnut (Half Past Dead, Under Siege 2, Anacondas 2) and Billy Burke (24 Day 2, Along Came a Spider). In addition, relative newcomer Jacinda Barrett (The Human Stain, Bridget Jones 2) does an admirable job as Morrison's beautiful and devoted partner.Overall, I think that the performances of the cast make the movie so much better - particularly Phoenix and Travolta, the former really making you feel for the plight of his character. And all in all it was a fairly good effort, admittedly marred slightly by a record number of montages including a closing sequence that was completely unnecessary, but still able to hold your attention for the duration. The fire scenes were thrilling, and the score - apart from the montage music - was perfectly suitable if never rousing. Sure, it doesn't really top Backdraft, but it is definitely not as bad as some other reviewers would profess. And whilst there are post-911 overtones that sometimes make it feel like an advert for being a heroic fire fighter, this is mostly kept to a minimum. The fact is that there really are too few movies out there that follow fire fighters in action, and so I am glad that I came across Ladder 49. It is a worthy addition to the fire-fighting movie ranks.
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