Published January 14, 2015
Paying tribute to some of America’s bravest, the firefighter film “Ladder 49” (search) starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix could heat up the screen at theaters this weekend.
But it’s just as likely that interest in the movie will go up in smoke once the lights go down.
Associated Press movie writer David Germain calls the flick a “well-intentioned but deadly dull dramatic tribute.”
The filmmakers, Germain says, “have cobbled together narrative snippets — some engaging, most inert — into a mushy, clichéd valentine to the men who live the firefighting life.”
Based in a Baltimore firehouse, the movie — directed by Jay Russell (search) (“My Dog Skip,” “Tuck Everlasting”) — is the story of a team of firefighters and their battle to save a colleague from an inferno.
“I think 9/11 shone a light on how valuable they were to us,” said Travolta, who plays Fire Chief Mike Kennedy. “Being such a modest group and not wanting to be looked at as heroes at all, they deserved it.”
Phoenix plays the lead, longtime fireman Jack Morrison from Baltimore in a performance Germain characterizes as “understated” and one that brings “an air of unsung heroism to the central character.”
But Phoenix’s acting isn’t necessarily enough to lift the film out of the doldrums.
“The lackluster characters and story squander a promising plot structure,” Germain said. “‘Ladder 49’ has no smoke and no fire. The movie plods along amiably but predictably, hitting all the unexpected buttons and not much else. … Little of the action musters much tension or drama.”
That said, filmmakers did take some risks when they made the movie — putting the cast through a month of fire training to prepare for the film. Producers chose to use as much real fire as possible, rather than faking it with green screens and computer-generated flames.
“We were only able to shoot about 30 to 45 seconds at a time because otherwise the equipment would literally melt,” said Russell. “And the actors, even with all the protective gear they were wearing, it would still get too hot.”
Travolta said it wasn’t the stars but the camera operators and other crew members that had it the roughest during filming of the fiery scenes, since many were working on the frontlines of the blazes.
“I at least had all the equipment on. So did Joaquin. So we could actually maybe get out of a fire — and we were trained," he said. "The poor crew might not have been able to get out, so I felt more worried for them, really.”
The stunt doubles for the actors were literally the ones in the line of fire.
“There was one sequence where I go over the side of a 20-story building and repel down and get someone in a window, and my stunt double did all that work of swinging along the building,” Phoenix said. “He was there for real.”
He said what was most important was that the film was true to firefighters, who gained a new-found respect after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“The most important thing to us was that firefighters felt that they were represented accurately and that this was an authentic depiction of their lives,” Phoenix said. “That took precedence over whether the film was considered financially successful, critically successful. The only thing that mattered to us was what they thought.”
And for Phoenix, the most rewarding aspect of making “Ladder 49” were the tours he took of fire stations and the reactions of those who have made putting out fires their life’s work.
“Getting the opportunity to go around to these firehouses on this tour and visit these men and women and have them come up to us and thank us for making this movie was just unbelievable,” he said.
FOX News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans and Mike Waco contributed to this report.