"Ladder 49" goes nowhere with its banal tale

Firefighters are, undeniably, heroes — rushing into burning buildings while the rest of us are rushing out, risking their lives as part of a day's work. They deserve a better movie tribute than Jay Russell's "Ladder 49," an action drama/weepie that's so busy telling us that its characters are heroes, it forgets that they should be people first.

The film, from a screenplay by Lewis Colick, is mostly structured in flashbacks. We begin with a vast building engulfed in flames as members of a Baltimore fire crew enter, seeking survivors. They carefully maneuver around collapsing walls and explosions. In the chaos, firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) becomes injured and trapped. As he lies awaiting help, the movie spins backward a few years, taking us to Jack's first day at the fire station, introducing us to a hero we don't yet know.

And we never do know him, despite nearly two hours of exposition. Nor do we know his mentor and chief, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), or the other guys at the station. (Yes, they're all guys, working in a squeaky-clean but entirely male enclave.) What we do learn is that they're all nice, fun-loving fellows; that Jack eventually acquires, like clockwork, a nice wife named Linda (Jacinda Barrett), two nice children and a nice home; and that pretty much everyone who has anything to do with the Ladder 49 firehouse is really, really nice. Oh, and they're heroes.

All this niceness presents a problem that the movie never overcomes: How do you create characters and manufacture drama from pleasantness alone? The fire scenes are undeniably exciting, particularly a midmovie rescue of a man on a ledge, and they occasionally jolt "Ladder 49" out of its placidity. In between the flames, there's a lot of footage of the guys drinking at a local bar, or of Linda getting mad at Jack because he's always risking his life, or of Jack's big-eyed kid saying that he doesn't want daddy to get hurt anymore.

But because we don't know the guys, or Linda, or the picture-perfect kid, none of this registers — they're not allowed to have the foibles and quirks that real people have. So the cast is stranded, with nothing to work with. The two lead actors have some chemistry together — Phoenix, with his husky, big-headed handsomeness, looks like a younger Travolta — but their relationship never goes anywhere beyond generic mentor/protégé.

"Ladder 49," with all its manly lip-biting and shoulder-heaving, isn't a terrible movie; it's just not much of a movie at all.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review **

"Ladder 49," with Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Morris Chestnut, Kevin Daniels, Robert Patrick. Directed by Jay Russell, from a screenplay by Lewis Colick. 115 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense fire and rescue situations, and for language. Several theaters.