Ladder 49 may need all the help it can get from the public good will. While it's good with mayhem -- the exciting action sequences include a rat-infested tenement exploding like a bundle of matchsticks and a daring rescue on the vertical face of a burning skyscraper -- it's pretty weak in terms of actual human behavior. Safe and sanitized, this is a resolutely old-fashioned movie, akin to the World War II flag-wavers that proposed John Wayne as the bulletproof savior of American freedom, or the sports biopics that told us Babe Ruth was a softhearted oaf who spent all his off-field time nurturing marital bliss and visiting sick kids in the hospital. The Baltimore firemen we meet here (and they are all men) don't even curse. The signature white marble stoops and the skyline may look the same, but these guys are apparently living in a completely different city than the down-and-dirty, street-hardened cops on the HBO series The Wire.
Oh well. As heroes go, we could probably do worse than bulky, thick-necked Joaquin Phoenix with a hose nozzle clamped in his fist. Phoenix has a club fighter's rough mug and the rolling, athletic gait of a linebacker, and that at least makes him just the right physical type to portray one Jack Morrison, a young idealist who joins the department because it's the right thing to do. Jack's a modest guy -- too much acting out wouldn't do -- but he clearly takes great satisfaction in getting a terrified businessman down from his burning office and grabbing up a teenager overcome by smoke inhalation. "Trust me," he yells. Everyone trusts him.
If Jack is here to save lives, his guardian angel, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), is here to impart wisdom. Jack's captain, later his chief, Kennedy is the kind of screw-the-rules mentor who keeps an open bottle of Bushmills on his shambles of a desk and wanders around the firehouse in his boxer shorts. But when it comes to upholding honor and instilling team spirit, he's your man. Travolta's not entirely convincing -- he never seems quite right in a uniform -- but he represents star power.
The movie begins with a horrific warehouse fire that dumps our Jack into a filthy well of rubble, then relies on a series of flashbacks while he awaits rescue. In those, we see the progress of his career from the early days as a green rookie getting hazed by the old hands, on through his baptism of fire, his mostly happy marriage (Jacinda Barrett is the long-suffering wife), the joys of fatherhood, and his development into a brave and trusted department veteran. Director Russell (My Dog Skip) and writer Lewis Colick (October Sky) go for the usual boys-must-bond stuff (the fire department, too, is a secret society steeped in pranks and rituals), and they don't blink at tragedy (two firemen die and another is grotesquely burned). But what they really seem to be after is moral uplift with a coating of noble grime.
Certainly, there's nothing wrong with Russell and Colick's brass-bound conviction that these are heroes -- hardworking, hard-drinking civil servants buoyed by machismo and fellow-feeling -- but Ladder is much less a drama of the streets than a kind of recruiting film, perfectly tuned to a moment in our history when firefighters are regarded as household saints. It's easy to imagine Denis Leary beaming it on the wall at his Firefighters Foundation, then passing the hat. The men of Ladder 49 occasionally shove and squabble, but in the main they're spotless paradigms, a band of brothers with no warts. Morris Chestnut's Tommy Drake will go through any wall for you. Robert Patrick's Lenny talks tough, and he's the picture of selflessness, just like Jack. Backdraft had more spectacular pyrotechnics, and the lavish 1970s disaster flick The Towering Inferno featured the potent star duo of Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. But Ladder 49 takes the blue ribbon for sheer veneration of its subjects. For that, it's consistently admirable and just a bit dull.