Dir:Jay Russell. US. 2004. 115mins.

America'spost-September 11 love affair with the figure of the heroic firefighter getsthe big screen treatment in Ladder 49, a character-driven action dramapairing a boyish Joaquin Phoenix with a fatherly John Travolta. The pairingworks well enough and the drama is sensitively handled by director Jay Russell(My Dog Skip). But even with its surprisingly downbeat ending this paeanto the average fireman often feels more like bland soap opera than blue-collarreality.

Theidealised portrait might go down well with domestic audiences and the mix ofaction and melodrama - plus the PG-13 rating -- should help Buena Vista attracta large audience of men, women and families when the film opens (against littledirect competition) in the US this weekend.

Ignitinginterest outside the US could be much tougher though. International audienceswill not find the film's heroes quite so emblematic and they may well find thesentimental tone hard to stomach. And overseas box office prospects will not behelped by an international rollout that doesn't have Ladder 49 openinguntil January in a number of major territories.

Thescript by Lewis Colick (October Sky) uses flashbacks and an episodicstructure to tell the story of Baltimore firefighter Jack Morrison (Phoenix).The story opens with Jack fighting a huge warehouse blaze and becoming trappedin the rapidly disintegrating building.

Hislong-time mentor, Fire Chief Mike Kennedy (Travolta), sends in a rescue teamand as the search continues the film looks back over key episodes in Jack'sworking and domestic life: his early days on the job with Mike and the rest ofthe Ladder 49 crew; his meet-cute with Linda (Australia-born Barrett, recentlyseen in The Human Stain) and their early family life; the death of acolleague; and Linda's eventual acceptance of Jack's dangerous career choice.

DirectorRussell has previously shown a deft touch with potentially schmaltzy materialand here his under-stated approach sometimes proves quite effective. Too often,though, scenes turn into cliches and the story avoids conflict or shading: Jackand Linda never have a serious fight, the other firemen all turn out to begreat guys and no-one lets the off-duty drinking get out of hand.

Thematerial doesn't give the actors much to work with. Travolta is warmlyappealing and lone female Barrett projects a nice girl-next-door quality in herunderdeveloped role. A bulked-up Phoenix is physically fairly convincing but hefrequently overdoes the winsome charm.

Thefilm's fire fighting scenes are mostly quite restrained, taking place inrundown apartments and houses. The action might disappoint moviegoers lookingfor explosions and fireballs - the kind of visceral thrills offered by RonHoward's 1991 fire fighting movie Backdraft - but it has averisimilitude that benefits the film overall.

Theone big set piece, the warehouse fire in which Jack gets trapped, does offer afew impressive pyrotechnic effects as the film periodically checks back on thesearch for its ailing hero.

Acouple of nicely staged stunt sequences show Jack making daring rescues fromburning buildings. The sequences provide the film with welcome shots ofadrenaline - and some useful clips for action-accented trailers.

Prodcos: TouchstonePictures, Beacon Pictures
US dist:
Int'l dist:
Exec prods:
Armyan Bernstein, Marty Ewing
JamesL Carter
Prod des:
Tony Burrough
BudSmith, Scott Smith
Main cast:
Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Robert Patrick, MorrisChestnut