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It’s amazing what a national tragedy can do for your cinematic profile: Before America’s other men in blue had the H-word bestowed upon them, they were portrayed as a boys’ club whose routine of card-playing and prank-pulling was broken up only by the occasional serial arsonist (Backdraft), murderous rampage (Bad Day on the Block), or tree-bound kitty in need of rescue (Pleasantville). Not so for Hollywood’s new breed of firefighter: As depicted in director Jay Russell’s Ladder 49, he’s a death-defying daredevil whose mission is to save the helpless strangers caught in what seems like an endless succession of three-alarm blazes. After a floor collapse leaves him trapped under a pile of burning rubble—and the rest of his company scrambling for a way to pull him out—Baltimore fireman Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself with a little time for personal reflection. Only the past 10 years of his life don’t quite flash before his eyes as much as they pop and fizzle: A series of clumsy flashbacks speed through Jack’s introduction to his future wife, their marriage, and the birth of their two children, all the while following his transformation from a fresh-faced rookie to a jaded veteran whose line of work has begun to take a significant toll on his home life. Scripter Lewis Colick should have known that this back-and-forth wouldn’t produce any real resonance, but he might not have cared: The October Sky vet is much better at the boys’-club stuff, anyway, and he makes sure that Jack’s extended firehouse family picks up a good portion of the tear-jerking slack. The true center of any firefighting flick, however, should be the fire itself—and Ladder 49’s yellow-and-orange antagonist lacks any real character. Sure, it causes an impressive explosion or two in the streets of Charm City. But even the movie’s more breathtaking scenes are undermined by Russell’s insistence on keeping things personal—say, in the tender rooftop eye-to-eye that brothers Dennis (Billy Burke) and Ray (Balthazar Getty) share in the instant between the audible crack beneath Dennis’ feet and Ray’s watching his older sibling fall to his fiery death in the room below. And of course, where there’s a big fire, there’s an even bigger funeral (or at least another trip to the hospital), so by the time Jack’s son worriedly tells him, “I don’t want you getting hurt, Dad,” you’ll be in full agreement. Indeed, if martyr-made-to-order Jack had just hung up his helmet, taken that desk job, and put an early end to Ladder 49’s shamefully sensationalized set of clichés, he’d have made a sacrifice for an even greater cause: sparing us the blowing of yet another theater’s worth of smoke up our asses. —Matthew Borlik