Ladder 49 DVD Review

Why are there so few firefighting films? So many movies take the route of showing the police force in action with the firefighters in the background. It's not that the police are any less worthy, it just seems like people who run into burning buildings deserve a bit more credit then they get. "Ladder 49" is probably one of the most personal, heartfelt, and emotional films ever done on the subject, choosing to ignore the all out action of some its predecessors. The movie is better because of it.

Firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) is new on the job. His co-workers are fun and energetic. As he matures, the job becomes a strain, barely dodging disaster more than a few times. His new wife has trouble dealing with his new career, as do his children. During a particularly nasty blaze, Jack becomes trapped and it falls on his captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) to try and get him out.

The way "Ladder 49" is told makes the film what it is. Starting off inside that massive fire, it then flashbacks to Jack's first day. Slowly we are introduced to him, building up his professional and personal life. Then it cuts back to Jack caught inside that crumbling warehouse. The first half of the film is predominantly warm and funny as the crew trade practical jokes. It's all there to soften the blows to come as the jobs become more deadly.

Unlike so many other films dealing with the same topic, "Ladder 49" isn't just about action and heroic rescues. It has those of course, but only to make its characters stronger and to fall in line with a story it's trying to tell. It's a great character study, always focused on Jack. That lets the viewer see how difficult it can be for not only the one inside an inferno, but also the ones sitting at home, potentially waiting for a day when the tragic news could come.

Joaquin Phoenix puts in a great performance, switching his mood as his career takes its toll. John Travolta never plays the good guy as well as he does the villain. Here's in great form, putting just as much emotion into the role as everyone else.

While it does do all of that remarkably well, it moves along at a breakneck pace, skipping over large portions of Jack's life. Though his wife's fears are supposed to be slowly growing, on screen it seems like they build overnight. There are times when it gets overly melodramatic, trying a bit too hard to pull at the viewers heart. Without intent to spoil anything, when Jack's young boy looks at him and says the equivalent of "Don't die daddy," you have to cringe.

Those are very minor knocks against what is the intense, just short of brilliant, tear-jerking ride. It's not just the best firefighting film since "Backdraft," it is the best film on the topic ever produced. You owe it to yourself to pick this one up. (**** out of *****)

There's about as much to complain about in the film as there is in this transfer, which is needless to say, not much. Amazingly, even with all the reds, oranges, and otherwise bright tones thanks to the fire, compression is well under control at all times. Facial detail is adequate, though it doesn't really jump out at you. Complaining about the grain would be nit picking, but if you're a purist, expect to notice it. (****)

Disney now has these new "home theater mixes" that are supposedly designed to work specifically with, well, home theaters. They've been used on some of their Disney efforts. This should mark the first attempt at using one in a live action film.

Needless to say, it sounds amazing. There are few moments where it really sounds like the audio has been moved to the rears just to move it. If you have higher end equipment, this may be more noticeable. Otherwise, this disc offers some of the best separation you'll ever hear outside of a DTS track. Actually, it may be better. Buildings crash all around the listening position. Fire trucks race through every speaker. The roar of the flame is brutal on the subwoofer. It's as intense as home audio can get. (*****)

Extras are rather sparse, especially for a film that made over $77 million in theaters alone. The commentary by Jay Russell and his editor Bud Smith is enthusiastic. If you haven't seen the film yet and want to peek in during a specific scene to hear them talk, don't. They do spout off spoilers on a regular basis.

The usual "making of" is a solid piece, split into three sections. They run a little over 21-minutes total. It provides a nice look at how the film came together. It does travel into the promotional side of things a bit too much, so be prepared to hear about how they did everything better than anything else (which is likely true, but it comes off sounding conceded).

"Everyday Heroes" is a real look at a firefighters life. It visits actual Baltimore firehouses and follows the crew home to look at life there. In total, it runs for thirteen minutes. There are five deleted scenes of varying length, the longest running about three minutes. Once that should've stayed involves the main characters experiencing 9-11 via a TV news report. Sadly, there's no commentary as to why the scenes were cut. The disc finishes off with a music video for the final song in the film. (***)

Numerous critics panned the advertising campaign that shamelessly used 9-11-01 to its advantage. Yes, it was wrong, but it's not right to use that against the filmmakers who likely had no control over it. That could very well be why the above-mentioned scene was cut after all, to avoid the connection. Don't let that detract from you experiencing the film either. It's too good to let that happen.

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