The Source for Youth Ministry

Movie Reviews
by Jonathan McKee

Ladder 49 (3/08/2005)

Rated PG-13 (for intense fire and rescue situations and for language)

Directed by Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting, My Dog Skip)

Starring Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta

Jonathan's Rating: Theatre Worthy

I think it was due time for a good “hero” picture. Not like Spiderman II (don’t get me wrong, that was incredible), I mean real life heroes. And in this post-9/11 era, everyone would probably agree that firemen fill that role.

Ladder 49 is the tale of the heroes that work just down the street from you and me, risking their lives regularly . . . because that’s their job.

I must admit, my experience might have been unique, because the Baltimore theatre I was in was a little more caught in the emotion of it all. I happened to be speaking in Baltimore that weekend and sat in a local theatre watching this film about a brave Baltimore fire team. The movie was actually filmed in Baltimore and the theatre was “Ooooooing” and “Aaaahing” at the authentic local sites. Martin O'Malley, the actual mayor of the city, brought even more realism to the film, cameoing in a powerful scene giving a medal to one of the firemen.

The film was hot from the start as we followed Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) into a burning building where he quickly displayed heroic efforts, risking his life to rescue someone. The person is saved, but a floor gives away and Jack is trapped in the burning building desperately in need of help. The hero now needs a hero.

That’s when we flashback to Jack’s first day at the station. We bounce back and forth from present day to flashback, watching him grow and develop for over a decade, saving many lives, and losing a few as well.

Yes . . . when I first saw the preview of Ladder 49 I thought of the 1991 Ron Howard film Backdraft—I wondered if the film would just be a repeat of the same. Far from it! Would you skip Dinero and Pacino in Michael Mann’s Heat because you already saw Lethal Weapon? Ladder 49 holds it’s own.

The performances were spectacular. Joaquin Phoenix delivers once again. I’ve actually heard some reviewers that were surprised with how good his performance was. I can’t say I was surprised. Joaquin has proved himself as an actor ever since he was a boy with his incredible performance of the fatherless “Gary” in Ron Howard’s Parenthood back in 1989. Since then he’s “wowed” audiences numerous times, most recognizably as the cruel incestuous Emporor Commodus in Gladiator. And Joaquin isn’t your “same role every time” actor like so many. (Did somebody say Costner?) Joaquin has some serious range. Compare his Gladiator character to his role opposite Mel Gibson in Signs. And for another glimpse at Joaquin’s ability, rent a 1998 film called Return to Paradise where his performance leaps way beyond the two names that precede him in the credits, Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche.

Regardless of all his earlier achievements, I’ll have to agree with those other critics that this is by far his best role.

And Joaquin isn’t blazing on the screen by himself. You’ll also see solid performances by John Travolta (who isn’t my favorite guy by any means- but he’s pretty good in this), Robert Patrick (who will forever be known as the “evil terminator”) and Morris Chestnut.

This film is incredibly powerful. Bring an entire box of Kleenex. I haven’t cried this much since the time last summer when I spent the whole afternoon making salsa! This film makes Steel Magnolias look like Dumb and Dumber! (Okay . . . maybe I’m going too far with the metaphors!)

Very young kids might be frightened by some of the intense scenes of fire rescue. But I wouldn’t hesitate to take my own 11 year old boy to it. No sex or nudity, and the language is PG-13. Although consider that there are a few scenes of guys getting drunk, fighting and talking trashy. Check out's web site (CLICK HERE) to make your own judgment on this one.

Absolutely—especially as a date flick. You won’t be disappointed. (Either will the execs of Kleenex Corporation, I think their stock has gone up since the film’s release! This film makes Glory seem like . . . okay, sorry, I’ll stop!)

Funny Side Note:
My brother has known to add his 2 cents to my reviews. When he read about my experience of watching this film in Baltimore, this was his response: “By the way, seeing Ladder 49 in Baltimore is nothing. I saw Return of the Jedi on Endor back in 1980 when two Ewoks sitting a couple of rows in front of me almost started a riot right after the scene when the Imperials kill the Ewok's mother. It was really tense for a few moments.”

Conversation Starter
Three Simple Questions (with Answers You May Be Looking for):

  1. What are some of the messages or themes you observed in this movie?

  2. How do you suppose we—as serious Christ-followers—should react to this movie?

  3. How can we move from healthy, Bible-based opinions about this movie to actually living out those opinions?

Jonathan McKee Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices, If I Had a Parenting Do Over, 52 Ways to Connect with Your Smartphone Obsessed Kid; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He has over 20 years youth ministry experience and speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, and You can follow Jonathan on his blog, getting a regular dose of youth culture and parenting help. Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

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