Ladder 49 – DVD Review

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Jay Russell


Joaquin Phoenix……….Jack Morrison
John Travolta……….Chief Mike Kennedy
Jacinda Barrett……….Linda Morrison
Morris Chestnut……….Tommy Drake
Kevin Daniels……….Don Miller
Robert Patrick……….Lenny Richter
Billy Burke……….Dennis Gauquin
Balthazar Getty……….Ray Gauquin

Touchstone Pictures presents Ladder 49. Written by Lewis Colick. Running time: 115 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense fire and rescue situations and language).

The Movie

Firefighters lead by example. On a daily basis these men rush into burning buildings, risking life and limb, looking for injured. This drama is a story of these ordinary men attempting exhilarating feats. But what makes it so different from Ron Howard’s Backdraft or the FX series Rescue Me starring Denis Leary?

When Backdraft was released in the early 1990’s, the press was focused on the special effects. Little attention was given to the characters. The TV series Rescue Me has colorful characters, but their coarse language and unruly acts cause them to be bad apples. Thankfully, Ladder 49 doesn’t suffer the same fate. By placing the focus on the actors, and not just the burning buildings or heroic rescues, director Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting) and his crew present a story about the kind of man who risks his life for a living.

This time around Joaquin Phoenix leapfrogs John Travolta and gets the top billing in this firefighter drama. Phoenix plays Jack Morrison, a rookie fireman assigned to a Baltimore firehouse. As a search and rescue team member Jack is one of those guys that rushes into buildings set ablaze.

The film begins in tricky fashion. Instead of introducing the characters and setting up the action, director Jay Russell demonstrates what firefighters do best; fight fires. A warehouse is on fire and people are trapped on the 12th floor. The smoke builds and the flames billow as Jack and his team charge into the warehouse. In the midst of rescuing a survivor, a problem occurs. The distance is too high for ladders to reach them. Luckily, Jack has a length of rope so he can tie the victim and lower him out a window to awaiting firefighters.

Catching his breath, Jack believes the worst is behind him. That is until the flooring gives way and he lands a few floors below, partly covered by debris and semi-conscious. Somehow he is able to burrow out of the dust and debris, regain consciousness and radio for help.

The man on the other end of the radio is a familiar voice. It belongs to Fire Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), Jack’s old boss. Knowing the window of opportunity is slim Kennedy organizes a rescue effort.

From here the movie flashes back to Jack’s first day as a rookie. So it is apparent that the director’s intention is to intercut Jack’s predicament with flashbacks of his life as a firefighter. Not groundbreaking storytelling, but effective nonetheless. Flashbacks are helpful in fleshing out Jack Morrison’s character. Without them the viewers would not have the same emotional attachment.

Joining Jack at the Baltimore fire station is a lively group of firefighters. Robert Patrick plays Lenny Richter, an aged but not so mature fire vet who gets his kicks by hazing the rookies. Other roustabouts include Tommy Drake (Morris Chestnut), Keith Perez (Friday Night Lights‘ Jay Hernandez) and Ray (Balthazar Getty) and Dennis (Billy Burke) Gauquin.

The captain of this ragtag group of Irish-Catholics is Mike Kennedy (Travolta). Travolta may have lost a bit of his luster after some recent box office bombs but he can still bring it. As Chief Kennedy, Travolta walks with a certain kind of gait that John Wayne would probably concede by tipping his Stetson hat.

Jack’s time at the firehouse is filled with excitement and despair. With each flashback we see his progression. At first he is a rookie battling his first blaze, fire hose in his grasp. Along the way he meets a woman named Linda (Jacinda Barrett). The two get married and have children. From time to time the two fight with one another; the big issue being the risks Jack takes as a firefighter. She dreads one day the fire chief will knock on her door with a sullen look saying, “I’m sorry to bother you Mrs. Morrison…”

The blazing special effects may look cool, but it is the relationships Jack has with his wife and Captain Kennedy that heat up the screen. Even with their tumultuous marriage Jack and Linda support each other. Travolta is serviceable as a father-figure-type to Jack. After a severe fire disfigures one of his men, Kennedy worries for Jack’s safety. He offers him a transfer to a pencil-pushing fire department position in downtown Baltimore. Jack turns down the offer because of his loyalty to the rest of the crew.

And it is that loyalty that motivates the men of Ladder 49; and it gives the audience a reason to care for these ordinary men who do extraordinary things.



The video transfer for Ladder 49 is very clear. Hardly any artifact issues. The scenes within the burning warehouse are dark, but the widescreen picture really shows the color richness of the flames. This film is presented in a (1.85:1) aspect ratio and is enhanced for 16 x 9 televisions.


The sound is a huge character in this feature. In the special features they go into great detail about how the sound effects editing was done. It shows, too. Sitting in your home theater, you can really feel the firefights. Your ears will be ringing after the boisterous explosions enter your head. Special for this DVD is an enhanced home theater mix that is designed specifically for your home theater system. Thank you Lucasfilm and its THX Optimizer. The English audio is 5.1 enhanced. There is also French Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound. For captions and subtitles there is English for the hearing impaired and subtitles in French and Spanish. No English subtitles? How strange.


Not heavy on bonus material, the DVD does have some good extras. The first bonus feature is The Making of Ladder 49 (21:09). This extra is divided into three different featurettes (On Location; Fire Academy: Training the actors; and Anatomy of a Scene: The warehouse fire). Thankfully, you have the option to watch them all (by selecting “play all”) or individually.

On Location is a small sampling of what goes into making a firefighter drama. Some of the sound bites include John Travolta, Joaquin Phoenix and director Jay Russell. The way this featurette is presented makes me want to believe it was originally intended for EPK (Electronic Press Kit) purposes.

Fire Academy: Training the actors is still an EPK at heart, but at least you can see some of the training that went into making this firefighter drama. The featurette points out that for one scene Travolta wasn’t wearing his gloves when he was trying to pull Phoenix from a fire. As a result, one of his hands was partially burned.

The last section, Anatomy of a scene: The warehouse fire, turns out to be the best of these three featurettes. By watching this feature you learn the benefits of sound effects editing. The warehouse fire is the perfect example. Jay Russell shot it like a silent film. Almost all the wood crackling and explosions were edited together from at least 30 to 40 different fire recordings.

Up next is the best feature on the disc. Everyday Heroes is a 13-minute piece that could easily have been 30 or 40 minutes in length. For 13 minutes real-life members of the Baltimore Fire Department are interviewed. It was filmed last fall as these brave men and women were to receive medals of bravery on September 26, 2004. This feature really grabs you. Sure, you may have an emotional connection with the characters of Ladder 49, but when you hear one firefighter talk about cradling a baby in his arms it really puts everything into perspective. This feature really captures the humanity of firefighters.

There are five deleted scenes that were justifiably left on the cutting room floor. Unfortunately, there is not a commentary option to listen to while the scenes play. That’s okay. If you pay attention you’ll pretty much understand why the scenes were left out.

The audio commentary by Jay Russell and his editor Bud Smith is quite good. To me, it seems that this commentary is edited, almost as if it was recorded out of sequence. Also, from time to time there are pauses in commentary. It’s not too distracting because the talent involved do a great job explaining the making of Ladder 49. They praise Joaquin Phoenix to death, making him out to be the workhorse on the film. Emphasis is also placed on the sound effects of the film and why CGI fire effects don’t work.

Rounding out the special features is a music video for Robbie Robertson’s song “Shine Your Light” and sneak peeks. The sneak peeks include the teaser trailer for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, National Treasure‘s theatrical trailer, Home Improvement and The Golden Girls on DVD, and a TV spot for Lost.


Phoenix, Travolta and newcomer Barrett shine in this gutsy drama about the life of a firefighter. The story behind Ladder 49 is not about Jack Morrison’s struggle to live. It’s a story of how he got to his predicament as well as how his friends and family have impacted him. The film is much better than I thought it would be. It is definitely one you should check out if you have the time or the inclination.

The DVD Lounge’s Ratings for Ladder 49
(OUT OF 10)






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