Man, being a firefighter must be awesome. You get to hang out with your best friends who treat you like a brother, engage in good-natured practical jokes and other bonding rituals, easily meet hot women and fall in love, save people's lives, and be a hero to everyone. Sure, occasionally someone dies or gets hurt, but it's always in service of the greater good, and afterward, they're mourned tastefully but passionately by their loved ones.
At least that's the impression you get from the rosy-colored drama Ladder 49, an ode to firefighters that's long on hero worship and short on pretty much everything else. All you need to hear are the words "firefighter drama" and you can basically construct the entire movie in your head without ever having to see it. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with the post-9/11 tendency to idolize firefighters—they do, of course, perform an incredibly important service—but idolization doesn't make for particularly compelling entertainment.
Ladder 49 also lacks structural integrity, as the story has firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) flashing back through his entire career as he lies trapped in a burning building. Since director Jay Russell and writer Lewis Colick need to cover 10 years in less than two hours, we just get the highlight reel of Jack's life. He joins the Baltimore City Fire Department, meets and falls in love with the beautiful Linda (Real World alum Jacinda Barrett), gets married, has kids, loses friends and saves lives. Every scene conveys a significant event in Jack's life, turning the entire movie into one big montage. After a while, it becomes absurd, as you know exactly what Important Event will take place in each sequence as soon as it starts, and you wonder if Jack has ever had a quiet, unimportant moment.
Phoenix is good at being intense and brooding, but he's far too subdued and charisma-free to carry a film as a self-sacrificing hero. His colleagues are interchangeable unless the plot calls for them to get meaningfully injured, and John Travolta phones in his performance as Jack's mentor. You'd be better off watching FX's dramedy Rescue Me, which shows its firemen as lying, cheating, womanizing bastards. It may not be more accurate, but it's a hell of a lot more entertaining.