Burnout: Firefighters without fire

Apparently Denis Leary hasn't put out– or ignited– all the fires on the East Coast. Ladder 49 is Backdraft for the post-9/11 world where firefighters get a little more respect.

The action blazes from the start as the men of Ladder 49 (that's a truck) climb the stairs to the 12th floor to rescue people from a burning building that could explode at any moment. Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) is the last man out, and he doesn't get out.

At least not then. We're left to wonder whether he will while we watch a recap of his career with Baltimore's Engine Company 33. That means more than an hour and a half of hijinks and heroism intercut with rescue efforts in response to Chief Kennedy's (John Travolta) order, "Get off your asses in there and find him!"

Without even a fraction of the edge of Leary's Rescue Me series on network FX, Ladder 49 unfolds like a Lifetime movie for men. One feels it would be unpatriotic to knock this tribute to the men in blue, but they might be better served by making them human rather than one-dimensional heroes.

The flashbacks begin with Jack reporting for duty as the "new rookie" and having all sorts of tricks played on him. After Jack's first fire, Dennis Gaquin (Billy Burke) picks up a couple of women for them in the supermarket. Jack marries his, Linda (Jacinda Barrett), and she's soon pregnant. A few minutes later they have two kids. Did I mention most of the guys are Catholic?

Shortly after Jack another rookie, Keith Perez (Jay Hernandez), arrives, is involved in an amusing but homophobic joke, then isn't heard from for about an hour. We don't learn anything about most of the others either, even though the lineup hardly changes as years go by. Even the Chief has only one sentence of personal backstory.

Every five or ten minutes there's another fire or a flashforward to Jack trapped in the building while the other men search for him.

It couldn't be more formulaic. You'll recognize most of the clich├ęs from old war movies (though since it's Baltimore, there's no Texan in the company), but here the enemy is fire. Linda is typical of the "women who wait," not knowing if their men will come back alive.

And not all of them do. About halfway through, a major character is killed off to remind us fire is dangerous and Jack may not come out alive in the end. It's never mentioned that some of the men treat firefighting as an extreme sport. That seems obvious, but to verbalize it might make the men seem less altruistic as they risk their lives to help strangers.

Phoenix carries the picture admirably. He can't raise it out of its mediocrity, but he proves his viability as a leading man. Travolta seems to have become content to take supporting roles in movies like this and The Punisher to avoid having to prove anything.

Robbie Robertson sells out with a faux Springsteen song behind the closing credits.

Criticizing Ladder 49 is not tantamount to criticizing real-life firefighters any more than criticizing the war in Iraq means we don't support our troops. Both groups deserve something better.