Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated with fire. It never ceased to be a thrill to burn ants with a magnifying glass, or to arrange napkins in piles, only to light them up and watch them burn. I even used take my sister's Barbie dolls and, using a lighter to fuse their heads together, turn them into siamese twins. (Ah, the joys of youth!) I share these stories not to scare you with demented nostalgia, but rather, to offer them as evidence of humankind's continued fascination with the primal element.
Fire, of course, has long been a favorite effect of the cinema, the most sensationalist of mediums. What would an action movie be without lots of big explosions, fiery car crashes, or giant flame throwers? Some movies even base their entire stories around them, ranging from the high-minded caveman epic 'Quest for Fire' to chintzy B-movies like 'Firestarter' to more commercial blockbusters like 'Backdraft.' An earnest tribute to the bravest of all civil servants, 'Ladder 49' falls into the latter category.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Jack Morrison, a Baltimore firefighter who is critically injured during a furious nighttime blaze. We learn his story in flashback -- from his first day on the job, to meeting his future wife Linda (Jacinda Barrett), through various personal tragedies and, eventually, fatherhood. As the years pass, he finds a mentor in Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), and his career prospects seem very bright. But continued tensions between his life as a family man and the immense dangers of his job will find him at a crossroads. It is as Jack struggles with this choice that we return to the fiery inferno referenced in the film's opening scenes -- if Kennedy and his crew can't reach him in time, fate may intervene and make his choice for him.
The movie that 'Ladder 49' most closely resembles is, of course, is 'Backdraft.' As long-time readers may recall, I found the Ron Howard blockbuster mawkish and exploitative -- a crass thriller that seems at odds with its human drama. 'Ladder 49,' on the other hand, is much better. I felt 'Ladder 49' earned its sentiment, by very carefully facilitating our empathy with Jack. We like this guy. And because he is so well-played by Phoenix, Jack's conflict between family and career does not seem like a cheap, melodramatic plot device. Instead, he comes to represent the sacrifice every fireman makes in choosing to dedicate his life to saving others.
Of course, 'Ladder 49' can easily be seen as corny, and the film is far from perfect. There are really no narrative surprises here, the action scenes often feel shoehorned in to make the film more commercial, and some of the characters -- particularly Travolta's -- lack the depth needed to elevate them beyond well-intentioned caricatures. But director Jay Russell brings such a heartfelt, empathetic perspective to the otherwise formulaic story that I couldn't help but be sucked in. 'Ladder 49' is a beautifully produced and highly effective picture that may not be fancy, but it works.
I wasn't sure what to expect from 'Ladder 49.' Having missed the film when it played theatrically, I had only seen it once before on standard-def. I wasn't blown away then, and a quick refresher before checking out this Blu-ray did little to change my mind -- the picture quality was dark and lacked depth, all the billowing smoked resulted in obvious compression artifacts, and I was quite irritated by the surprising amount of edge enhancement.
Thankfully, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 upgrade is noticeably superior. Gone is the pixelation, and the intrusive edge enhancement. Shadow delineation is clearly improved, with fine details no longer crushing into nothingness, yet blacks are not washed out, nor is contrast too harsh. Colors are also excellent, with deep, vivid reds and excellent fleshtones. Image depth is often fabulous as well.
The image does still retain a gritty, somewhat film-like quality. The grayscale does seem "pushed" in the mid-range, resulting in a more grainy appearance than perhaps is the norm for most modern releases. The transfer is also a tad soft, though this is consistent throughout so I will assume it was a stylistic choice made during post-production. But no matter -- 'Ladder 49' looks terrific, and I can't imagine fans will be disappointed by this presentation.
Disney delivers a full 48 kHz/24-bit uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track for 'Ladder 49,' and risk of making a really bad pun, I have to say it's smokin'!
Right from the first scene, the soundfield is fully immersive. Flames roar in the rears, various discrete effects are directed to all channels, and the tonal clarity of the mix is superb. At even a decent volume, I could detect the sound of a fire hose being turned on, or the echo of a fireman's feet racing up a flight of stairs -- all amid a cacophony of sound that, on a lesser mix, would have decimated any hint of subtlety.
Though the non-action scenes certainly display a more subdued presence, the track remains fantastic in terms of fidelity. The complete frequency spectrum is robust and lush, from the warm timbre of William Ross's rockish score, to rock solid dialogue that never muddles into abstraction. Low bass is also excellent -- this baby really cranks whenever fire is on the scene. Only the lack of a completely consistent sense of envelopment keeps this one from being a truly five-star soundtrack. Still, it's a terrific presentation.
'Ladder 49' comes to Blu-ray packed with the same extras as the standard-def release. This is a very nice comprehensive package, and a step above much of the purely promotional material that usually hogs DVDs these days.
First up is the audio commentary with director Jay Russell and editor Bud Smith, a straightforward but strong track. The vibe is easy-going if a bit technical, with the pair focusing mostly on how the biggest scenes were constructed, working with the effects, and various production stories about shooting largely on location in Baltimore, including one amusing tale about how the film's big warehouse fire sequence caused a near-panic during filming, as local residents had no idea it was fake. It would have been nice to hear from the actors, and the pace starts to drag at the end, but it's still a very solid track.
Next up is the generically-titled "The Making of 'Ladder 49.'" Running an total of 21 minutes, the featurette is divided into three parts: "On Location" (5:25), "Fire Academy: Training the Actors" (7:11) and "Anatomy of a Scene: The Warehouse Fire" (8:33). By far the most interesting aspect is the effects, which are discussed in great detail. There is plenty of scary making-of footage (actors dangling over pits of pyrotechnics, etc.), more Baltimore atmosphere, and lots of joking between John Travolta and the rest of the cast. And by the way, am I the only one who finds Travolta's "aw, shucks" humility just a little disingenuous? Maybe I'm just cynical...
A second featurette, "Everyday Heroes" (14 minutes) is the most interesting. Interviews with a few real-life firemen offer some nice background on the fictional characters in the movie, and it is a nicely-shot, classy affair. It is also hard to argue with the heroism of men who risk their lives by running into flaming buildings while everyone else is running out. All that is missing is a bit more historical perspective on the Baltimore Fire Dept., which is touched upon too briefly. An extra ten minutes would have been great.
The last major extra is the collection of Deleted Scenes, which combined run about 14 minutes. I wasn't a big fan of these, especially a rather unnecessary scene based on an actual 9/11 tragedy (they were wise to cut it from the finished film). The quality of the scenes are rather good, as are the rest of the video-based supplements -- all presented in full 1080p video. Kudos, Disney.
Rounding out the collection is a music video for Robbie Robertson's "Shine our Light." Alas, no Theatrical Trailer for the film is included, just spots for a few other Disney Blu-ray titles.
'Ladder 49' is an well-intentioned, quite entertaining action-drama. It's got a great cast, looks terrific, and has enough fiery set-pieces to deliver great home theater demo material. Disney doesn't let us down with this Blu-ray release, which easily tops the standard-def version in terms of video and audio, and doesn't skimp on the extras. Though casual viewers may want to confine this to a rental, diehard fans shouldn't hesitate in picking this one up.