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Baltimore firefighter Jack Morrison (Phoenix), making the transition from inexperienced rookie to seasoned veteran, struggles to cope with a risky, demanding job that often shortchanges his wife and kids. He relies on the support of his mentor and captain, Mike Kennedy (Travolta) and his second family — found in the brotherly bond between the men of the firehouse. But, when Jack becomes trapped in the worst blaze of his career, his life and the things he holds important — family, dignity, courage — come into focus. As his fellow firefighters of Ladder 49 do all they can to rescue him, Jack's life hangs in the balance.
For more about Ladder 49 and the Ladder 49 Blu-ray release, see Ladder 49 Blu-ray Review published by Martin Liebman on May 21, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke
Director: Jay Russell
» See full cast & crew
Ladder 49 Blu-ray Review
Climb aboard 'Ladder 49' for a good Blu-ray experience.
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, May 21, 2010
It's a job.
Firefighting movies don't seem to come around as often as they should. It's a sub-genre with plenty of potential not only for sizzling on-screen excitement but for raw and unforgiving human drama. Those firefighting movies that do make it to the screen prove worthy pictures and, more often than not, fan favorites. Probably the two best-known of the lot are Backdraft and The Towering Inferno, the former a more "traditional" firefighting film, the latter more of a major Disaster picture heavy on firefighting elements. 2004's Ladder 49 enjoys a style that's more akin to Backdraft, the picture an unflinching and oftentimes poignant glimpse into the trials of some of the world's most heroic individuals. Though obviously amped-up for greater cinematic effect, Ladder 49 proves itself a capable, entertaining, raw, and moving picture, populated with good performances and steady direction, and what it lacks in mystery it more than makes up for in spirit.
Baltimore firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix, Signs) has been seriously injured in a high-rise blaze, falling twelve stories and suffering a broken leg. He's cut off, out of oxygen, and can only hope to be rescued. He's in communication with his Captain, Mike Kennedy (John Travolta, Wild Hogs), but the size and scope of the blaze and Jack's location is making it difficult for his fellow firefighters to reach him. As he waits for help to arrive, he thinks back on his life as a firefighter, recalling his first day on the job, the rookie hazing he endured, his first mission, falling in love with wife-to-be Linda (Jacinda Barrett, The Last Kiss), and the many highs and lows that have dotted what's become a long and fruitful career that's seen him through tough times, times that have helped him to grow as a man, husband, and friend. With the fire raging and his time running out, a man who usually rescues those in need can only wait for his friends to find a way to get him before the flames, heat, and absence of oxygen become too much for him to bear.
Ladder 49 crafts two stories at once to excellent effect. It's an interesting concept, one that's not brand new but one that's certainly well-implemented into the film and fitting of the story. The juxtaposition between the here and now and the many years of service that has led Jack Morrison to his critical life-or-death moment frames his entire life as a fireman -- his rookie hazing; his burgeoning romance; his growth as man, husband, and father; and the respect he comes to earn from his peers -- in a manner that accentuates the immediacy of his struggle to live, all the while developing the character to a point that his life becomes as precious to the audience as would a family member trapped in the same situation. It's all framed through several other tough trials he faces along the way; one friend dies, another is severely burned and disfigured, and the pain of those losses and tragedies demonstrate the closeness of the firefighting community and the dangers of a job with no margin for error, again only accentuating the immediacy of the moment and putting greater emphasis on the difficult choices that must be made along the way to save him. It's excellent stuff that paints real-life heroes not as people that aren't above pain and emotion but instead as fragile as anyone else, the difference being their courage to fight for the welfare of others and for one another in the face of one of the world's most dangerous and unforgiving elements.
Ladder 49's greatest success comes from the way it develops its characters. Though the picture is heavy on action-oriented elements, Director Jay Russell's (The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep) film is first and foremost a human drama. Through the red-hot blazes, screaming fire engines, and dangerous situations, he builds a character roster that might not be long remembered in the annals of cinema, but one that nevertheless proves well-drawn, strongly-developed, and wonderfully-acted, all key ingredients in heightening the picture's moving, heartfelt, and sometimes unforgiving drama. Russell's picture paints firefighting as a war that's fought against a dangerous and deadly enemy by a fraternity of men who come to respect one another through their many trials amidst both the joyous and deserved wins and painful loses. Every main character in Ladder 49 feels like a real human being, a flesh-and-blood brother that's more than an image projected on a screen. When they hurt, the audience hurts; when they defeat a tough fire, the audience feels like a hero, too. The characters come to life thanks to a collection of wonderful performances; despite the a cast roster that features several popular names, each actor disappears into their roles and they mold their characters into individuals with spirits that extend beyond the screen. John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix are both excellent, and the picture's supporting cast -- Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke, Robert Patrick, and Jacinda Barrett -- also do well to capture Ladder 49's emotion, spirit, and realism in every scene.
Ladder 49 Blu-ray, Video Quality
Ladder 49 rolls onto Blu-ray with a nice-looking 1080p, 1.85:1-framed transfer. Though it sometimes looks flat and dim and features a few minor trouble spots, there's plenty here to like. It's not the stuff of Blu-ray legend, but Ladder 49 impresses through a pleasant film-like texture that's accentuated by a bit of film grain, which often appears more prominent over lighter colors. Generally, colors are rich and accurate, though flesh tones sometimes capture a slight red push. Bright red fire engines sparkle, and there's no sign of overly pronounced nor excessively dim hues in the film; they all appears pleasantly natural whether in the darker burning buildings or brighter daytime scenes. Fine object detail is fine but unremarkable next to superior Blu-ray discs. It handily beats standard definition material in terms of clarity and sharpness, and it captures plenty of small nuances, whether scratches and dents on a fire hydrant or the rough texturing of broken concrete and rubble. Blacks are fine, though in a few scenes they appear to absorb some finer details, and such scenes often coincide with the moments where the image appears at its flattest. Though there's the occasional spot and pop on the print, Disney's effort with Ladder 49 impresses far more often than not. Overall, this is a good transfer that delivers a nicely filmic presentation.
Ladder 49 Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Ladder 49 bursts onto Blu-ray with a high-powered PCM 5.1 uncompressed soundtrack. The highlight of the track clearly comes in the form of several large explosions that send a tremendous amount of power through the soundstage. The subwoofer will be tested throughout the film, and when played at reference volume, there's no mistaking the sheer power of the soundtrack. The low end's clarity and precision are no match for the finest Blu-ray has to offer -- found in films like Terminator Salvation and War of the Worlds -- but Disney's PCM track does far more than simply hurl wave after punishing wave of sound at the listener. Of course, there's plenty more to like about this track aside from the prodigious low end. The film's music -- courtesy of William Ross (Black Sheep) -- plays as big, spacious, smooth, and satisfying, and the track captures the score's nuances in both the larger action numbers and the smaller, more dramatic themes. The track never misses an opportunity to make full use of the 5.1 setup, consistently engaging the surrounds during both the picture's many firefighting action scenes and in the more reserved moments where the back channels become awash in atmospherics, particularly during several bar scenes where light background music, patron chatter, and clanking dishes bring the environment to life. Solidified by faultless dialogue reproduction, Ladder 49's uncompressed soundtrack both impresses and satisfies on every level.
Ladder 49 Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Disney brings Ladder 49 to Blu-ray with a fair assortment of extra content, headlined by an audio commentary track with Director Jay Russell and Editor Bud Smith. Budding filmmakers will enjoy the discussions on the film's structure both on-camera and off, discussing why the picture is staggered with flashbacks but also speaking on the technical preparations leading up the shoot. They also speak about the actors' firefighting training, the performances of the cast and their understanding of the emotional depth of the picture and the lives of real-life firefighters, the film's nuanced and aggressive sound design meant to engulf the viewer in the realm of the fire, the heroism of firefighters, and much more. Despite some dead air, Russell and Smith deliver what is often a captivating track, and it's well worth a listen. Everyday Heroes (480p, 13:41) contains a collection of interviews with real-life firefighters. The Making of 'Ladder 49' (480p) is a three-part feature that explores several elements behind the construction of the film. On Location (5:28) is the first, the piece looking at the shooting locations and the quality of the actors. Fire Academy: Training the Actors (7:12) takes audiences behind-the-scenes for a look at the actors' preparations for their roles. Finally, Anatomy of a Scene: The Warehouse Fire (8:37) takes an in-depth look at the process of bringing the film's biggest scenes to fruition. Also included are five deleted scenes (480p, 14:05); the "Shine Your Light" music video by Robbie Robertson (480p, 4:16); and Disney's Movie Showcase that features a trio of scenes that demonstrate Blu-ray at its best, though they default to the lossy 5.1 soundtrack.
Ladder 49 Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
September 11 changed the way the world looks at firefighters. They were heroes before, yes, but the scale of their sacrifice, upmost dedication to duty, and unflinching courage on that day made them into something greater: real people and not just invisible men in yellow suits with shiny red trucks. Ladder 49 accentuates that point, crafting a band of brothers who fight not on the battlefields of Europe or Southeast Asia but in hometowns and cities against a relentless enemy that shows no mercy. It was never a thankless job, but it's become something greater than a profession; there's a newfound respect not only for the work they do but for the lives they lead and the sacrifices they and their families make on a daily basis in the name of protecting their friends, loved ones, and communities. Ladder 49 is a fitting tribute to firefighters and a must-see film that's packed with raw and real emotions that make it one of the best of its kind. Disney's Blu-ray release of Ladder 49 holds up even today as a solid all-around package. Boasting a quality film-like transfer, a strong uncompressed soundtrack, and a fair collection of bonus materials, this is a disc well worth owning. Recommended.
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