Ladder 49 Jay Russell

I never thought I'd live to prefer Ron Howard's Backdraft to anything, but it's the clear winner in its maudlin fireman duel with Ladder 49. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Jack Morrison, a fire-fighter trapped in a burning grain elevator; as frenzied colleagues try to fish him out, we see his life and career in flashbacks. Actually, we experience them as flashbacks twice: once as memories of his life and once when we recall the clichés that they're based on. Not only does Morrison work in one of those fire halls where they're constantly playing bad practical jokes on each other (with John Travolta running around in his underpants), but he follows the usual working-class hero trajectory to a tee: honour/valour/courage, loves his wife and family but is possessed by work, wants to switch jobs to be safe but must follow his fireman mojo, that sort of thing. Consequently, though all of this is in service of honouring the men who, as they say, "run into a burning building when everyone else is running out," it doesn't make enough of an impression to really do that job, and one thinks more about waiting out the stick-figure characters and standard issue situations than in meditating on certain people's personal sacrifice. Good sound, though, especially in this THX-certified edition. Extras include a commentary with director Jay Russell and editor Bud Smith, which explains the logistics of the fire scenes while being entirely too credulous of the material. There are also three "making of" featurettes, the best of which deals with the actors' training as firemen, a documentary featurette on real-life fireman, which serves as better tribute than the feature does, five deleted scenes, including one that tastelessly name-checks 9/11, and a video for Robbie Robertson's schmaltzy "Shine Your Light." (Touchstone/Buena Vista)