Few people love a job as much 10 years down the road as they did on the first day—or, if they do, they love it differently. That's true for Jack Morrison (Phoenix, see page 26), a Baltimore firefighter who goes from an enthusiastic probie to a wary veteran over the course of this well-intentioned but plodding portrait of a fireman.
Ladder 49 begins with Morrison rescuing a man from a burning building, only to end up trapped there himself after the building collapses. While his fellow firefighters, led by their chief (Travolta), frantically work to rescue him, Morrison recalls his life via flashbacks: his first day at the firehouse, his courtship of his wife (Jacinda Barrett), his colleagues who died in fires and the times he questioned whether, as a father, he had the right to risk his life.
Phoenix is appealingly low-key, while Travolta is restricted mostly to playing sage Master to the younger actor's Grasshopper. Ladder, directed by Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting), is above all an earnest tribute to firefighters. (Disney, the releasing studio, says the script was in the works prior to 9/11.) But sincerity takes you only so far. The film often feels more quasi-documentary than dramatic, with the most effective moments coming when it concentrates on the mechanics of firefighting (how to lug a hose), not when it's aiming for big emotional notes. (PG-13)