Ladder 49 is a methodical, step-by-step account of a firefighter's existence, presented in a no-frills, straight-ahead fashion but ultimately taking you no place you've not been before. Granted, given the subject matter, there are only so many places you could have gone, and screenwriter Lewis Colick (October Sky) makes all those expected stops, like clockwork.
In the film's spectacular start-up, fireman Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) manages a dazzling rescue in a 20-story blaze before a stairwell collapses and sends him toppling down a floor or two. And there he lies for the rest of the film, waiting for his cohorts to get to him, with nothing but his flashbacks to keep him warm (although that's not quite the right word).
Enter Jack the rookie, and the razzing ritual every new guy gets. Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), who commands the firehouse, pretends to greet the new recruit in his cups and underwear. Then there's the bogus confessional and the old goose-in-the-locker chestnut-firehouse behavior is not far removed from frathouse shenanigans, but it keeps the boredom at bay.
Away from work, Jack makes all the milestone jumps-courtship, marriage, children, christenings, bickerings over the dangers of his chosen profession-but none makes an imprint because the "characters" are no more than stick figures. Director Jay Russell (My Dog Skip) does not necessarily keep the clichs coming like a house afire, but the plodding plotting is punctuated by fine action scenes of the firefighters doing their thing.
Jacinda Barrett (formerly of MTV's "The Real World") plays Phoenix's love interest, who manages to go from booze-buddy to nagging harridan in only ten years. Travolta's macho line readings are a hoot to behold, but he does give the final stretch of film the dignity it so desperately desires and needs.