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Ladder 49 DVD Review

Ladder 49

Theatrical Release: October 1, 2004 / Running Time: 115 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Jay Russell

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Jack Morrison), John Travolta (Captain Mike Kennedy), Jacinda Barrett (Linda Morrison), Robert Patrick (Lenny Richter), Morris Chestnut (Tommy Drake), Billy Burke (Dennis Gauquin), Balthazar Getty (Ray Gauquin), Jay Hernandez (Keith Perez)

Review by Aaron Wallace

Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) is part of a close brotherhood of firemen in an urban town. Each day, he and his squad brave the perils of firefighting in order to save lives. In the years since he first joined the team, Jack has come to look towards Captain Mike Kennedy
(John Travolta) as a mentor and leader, as have the others on the squad. On a day like any other, the firemen are called to the rescue of a burning highrise. Upon arriving, Jack learns that someone is trapped on the twelfth floor and rushes to the top of the building where he makes a successful rescue. Just before he can get out himself, though, the building caves and he finds himself trapped at the bottom of the complex.

From this vantage point, the film flashes back through Jack's memory to a time when he was just beginning as a fireman. As the film progresses, the setting alternates from these years gone by back to the ongoing attempt to find Jack and save his life. The result is a dialogue of sorts between the past and present, giving the viewer a unique and fuller perspective. The opening sequence is intense and filled with action, as are many to follow. The extensive flashbacks, which make up the bulk of the movie, color Jack's current condition with the events that led him there and the family life that awaits him at home.

Though it incorporates elements of action, drama, and love, at its heart, Ladder 49 is truly a story about life. Both the ins and outs of daily life at a firehouse and the struggles and maturation of the protagonist are presented with touching realism. The film is both very suspenseful and immensely emotional, causing the viewer to feel for and care about the characters and all that goes on in their worlds.

Jack takes a phone call at the firehouse while being heckled by his coworkers. Captain Mike Kennedy among the honored.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a bit of an "everyday man" in the part of Jack Morrison, and does so with finesse. The same can be said for John Travolta, whose role as Captain Mike Kennedy is smaller than Phoenix's but no less convincing. Given his iconic status, Travolta initially seems a bit too much a presence for the role (a concern expressed by the director in the commentary), but that quickly fades away. The authentic feeling that these are actual firemen can be credited in large part to the performance of these two leads as well as the rest of the supporting cast. Jacinda Barrett gives a believable performance as Jack's concerned and loving wife, Linda, as well.

Jay Russell's direction adapts to the tone of the story at the time, be it the life reflection or the fire-fighting action. During the latter, the camera work really brings the chaotic feel one would assume exists inside a fire search and rescue mission to life. William Ross's score is also very much appropriate, utilizing a pleasant and soothing Celtic sound during the calmer scenes and an intense, driven sound during the more dramatic ones.

Intense search and rescue scenes and a good deal of profanity warrant the film's PG-13 rating.

Buy Ladder 49 (Widescreen Edition) on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
(Reformatted Fullscreen Available Separately)
Dolby Digital 5.1 Enhanced Home Theater Mix (English),
Dolby Digital 5.1 (French)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned
Release Date: March 8, 2005
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
THX-Certified with Optimizer tests
Black Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

Ladder 49 is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The picture quality is clear, vibrant, and pleasing overall. Though there is occasionally some minor edge enhancement, the video is otherwise everything one would expect from a new film. A reformatted "full screen" edition is also sold separately.

The DVD is also the first from Touchstone Pictures (or anything other than Walt Disney Pictures, for that matter) to feature the Dolby Digital 5.1 Enhanced Home Theater Mix audio track. The directors often refer to the film's sound as its other actor, so this surprising but exciting inclusion seems appropriate. Every crack and crash heard in the fire comes through the speakers with detail and clarity. Though it's not as dynamic as The Lion King, for example, the Enhanced Mix is still a notch above the standard 5.1 track. A bit too much emphasis is placed on the center channel at times, but for the most part, the sound is crisp, clean, and well-mixed. The DVD is THX-Certified and includes the THX Optimizer tests to perfect your audio/video settings.

The animated main menu is set to a soothing Celtic tune that is found in the film. Director Jay Russell discusses the making of the film. Jack and Linda take in the breaking news of the attacks on the World Trade Center in the deleted scene, "9-11."

BONUS FEATURES

For a single disc release, Ladder 49 packs a pleasing amount of bonus material (unfortunately, a trailer isn't among them). First up is the feature audio commentary with director Jay Russell and film editor Bud Smith, with the former doing the bulk of the talking. Though it's very organized, the commentary track has a very conversational feel about it and very rarely pauses for any lulls. Lots of stories are shared but there's not much in the way of technical references to what's on the screen, though the two do talk extensively about the pre-production process and training for the cast. The majority of the commentary is spent praising the heroics of firefighters as well as the ability of the cast to imitate them. It's not as interesting as some commentaries, but not as dull as others. At any rate, it's worth a listen, at least in part.

"The Making Of 'Ladder 49'" (21:09) largely covers the same ground as the commentary. Among the topics discussed are the cast's training, shooting locales, the danger involved in the filming, and one scene in which Joaquin Phoenix was actually on fire! A series of very enthusiastic interviews with the cast and crew make this retrospective interesting to see, even if there isn't a lot of actual "making of" shown. Perhaps the most interesting segment is the dissection of one early scene in which viewers learn about which shooting locations were real and which were inside a studio (with surprising revelations). The featurette can be viewed in its entirety or as separately themed chapters.

There are five deleted scenes that can be viewed all together (13:59) or as individual scenes ranging from one to four minutes each. There's no introduction by the director but the scenes are capped off by parts of the final film for context's sake. Most of the scenes are forgettable and it's easy to see why they were left out, though one entitled "9-11" is certainly interesting, though not without a political edge. In it, the concern of even firefighters outside of New York City when they first saw the news of the 9/11 attacks is depicted. It would have been nice to hear why the decision was made to leave this scene out, though there are hints as to the reason in the commentary.

An involving featurette called "Everyday Heroes" (13:38) chronicles the real-life heroics that are depicted in the film. Interviews of firefighters and their families are intermixed with an interview with John Travolta, leading up to an honors banquet with the firefighters and the cast.

Robbie Robertson's music video for "Shine Your Light" (4:24), the film's theme song, is also included. The song is moving and well-sung and has a rather acoustic gospel sound to it, lending a certain poignancy to its use in the film. The video takes place in a city setting similar to that of the film and uses footage from the theatrical cut as well as what appears to be new footage shot with both Jacinda Barrett and Robertson himself.

The packaging is a pretty standard keepcase and inside a four page DVD Guide can be found, highlighting some of the bonus features as well as advertising upcoming releases of National Treasure and Finding Neverland. The menus are lively and thematic, both in appearance and sound. The disc opens with previews for The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, National Treasure, and "Home Improvement": The Complete Second Season. The Sneak Peeks menu also reveals previews of "The Golden Girls": The Complete Second Season and ABC's hit series "Lost."

Jack and Captain Kennedy discuss moving on. "Why do some men run into buildings when other men are
running out?"

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Covering the full range of the emotional spectrum, Ladder 49 is a film about bravery in the face of danger, love in the face of fear, and life in the face of death. Funny at times and enthralling at others, it delivers an emotional and compelling story by its end that viewers can connect with. Well-directed, well-acted, and well-scored, it boils down to being a very good film.

Complete with Touchstone's first delivery of a mostly pleasing Enhanced Home Theater Mix, satisfactory video treatment, and a decent number of bonus features, the DVD is nearly as well-done as the film itself. Ladder 49 earns an enthusiastic and much-deserved recommendation for any viewer of appropriate age.

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Reviewed March 3, 2005.