Jack Morrison is the type of guy who needs to believe that what he does counts for something bigger than he. His job as a Baltimore firefighter gives him this satisfaction. Then one day he enters a burning warehouse. His team rescues two men, but Jack goes back on the possibility that there might be a third. He finds the man and gets him to safety just before the building explodes and Jack is caught in the burning debris.
Injured, trapped and not sure he’ll ever get out, Jack begins to relive the choices he’s made since his days as a rookie firefighter. In a series of flashbacks, we see Jack being initiated into the firehouse culture, fighting his first fire, meeting the woman who would become his wife, and permorming many heroics during the 10 or so years covered in the story.
Meanwhile, his comrades of Ladder 49 are working desperately to get him out of the burning building, cutting through concrete and rebar as the building threatens to come down on everyone in a shower of flames and debris.
The selflessness and courage of these firefighters gets great play. Time and again men run into burning buildings to rescue people, often risking their own safety to do so. For example, as Jack rescues a girl in a burning apartment, he sees that a room is about to flash over and he turns his body to put it between the girl and the flames. When a brother firefighter is in danger, his comrades become ferocious in their attempts to rescue him—sometimes to the point of risking death themselves.
Their bond is strong. They frequently pull pranks on one another (all of which are taken good-naturedly), and gradually form a large family, giving no thought to race or religion, with wives and kids all becoming part of the gang. Family life is important to these men. One gives up a long-planned fishing trip to go to his son’s friend’s ball game.
A badly injured firefighter’s only concern is that a fire victim got out okay. An injured firefighter, reluctant to let his children see his badly burned face, is told, “Your kids don’t love you for your looks. They need their dad.”
One firefighter willingly gives his life to spare the lives of his comrades.
Roman Catholicism has a prominent role in this movie. We see church services, a church wedding, a baptism and a funeral. A priest leads mourners in the “Our Father” at a graveside.
All that is quite positive, but what may rile devout Catholics is the depiction of a prank in which rookie firefighters are led to believe that they’re confessing sins to a priest behind a curtain, only to realize they’ve been disclosing their secrets to their fellow firefighters.
A veteran firefighter tells Jack, “You see enough fires, you’ll find God.” Two firefighters claim they can’t help with chores because the captain supposedly put a hex on them.
Falling victim to the “confessional” prank, Jack admits that he’s had impure thoughts about “loose women.” The “priest” asks Jack if he’s a virgin; the answer is no. After the prank is revealed, a man says he wants to be introduced to those women. Another rookie, wise to the prank, says he can’t have that problem because he’s gay. (He’s joking.)
A firefighter attempts to pick up two pretty women in a grocery store. His shyer partner tells one woman that they’ve just come from a fire and “the smoke’s gone to his head.” The woman responds, “It doesn’t seem to be his head that’s the problem.” Jack and this woman are later seen waking up in the same bed, implying they had sex. (They marry a few scenes later.) Jack rebukes a fellow firefighter for cheating on his wife.
Jack is jokingly accused of operating a phone sex business out of the firehouse. A firefighter who loses a drinking game must strip, but the scene cuts away after he takes his shirt off. Several women wear very low-cut blouses, and Jack’s wife is seen in a sheer nightdress with a robe over it. There are several scenes of the firemen in their boxer shorts.
The fire scenes can be intense, with fireballs billowing down hallways and blowing out windows. A building collapses in flames. Many times the firefighters are pelted with debris, and a few times they must run through flames and dodge collapsing walls and staircases. Several fall as roofs and floors collapse. The gas tanks of cars parked close to a burning building explode from the heat, bowling over several men.
A fireman is next to a boiler when it explodes, and the hot steam hits him full in the face. We later see him in the hospital as a nurse cleans his skin grafts. (The man says they’ve put dead people’s skin on his face.) Because of the scene’s lighting, however, viewers don’t see the full extent of the damage.
A fireman is treated for a bleeding cut on the side of his head. There are two scenes in which men get into fistfights.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Many scenes take place in an Irish pub, and a lot of beer is consumed along with some hard liquor. A few times people engage in drinking contests, seeing who can be the first to down a pint of beer and, in one case, a pint of beer with a shot of harder liquid poured into it. A woman is told, “You gotta get wasted at these parties.” She proceeds to do just that and wakes with a thumping hangover the next day. (She half-jokingly asks her boyfriend to kill her.)
Jack and his wife drink beer after a backyard party. A seemingly drunk fire captain has a bottle of booze on his desk and pours a drink for a rookie. (It turns out to be an elaborate prank.) On the positive side, a woman abstains from drinking because she’s pregnant.
A few characters smoke cigarettes.
It’s refreshing to see a film with unvarnished heroism positively portrayed. The Hollywood tendency is to take characters that should be heroic and turn them into antiheroes. That doesn’t happen with Ladder 49. These men are not plaster saints (they all have faults, some worse than others), but they remain heroes. While some of the secondary characters are not very well developed, I found myself caring intensely about Jack, his family and his comrades.
Many reviewers slammed the film, though. Some faulted its technical aspects, but a common—and more telling—reaction can be summed up in the review by The New York Times’ Mahohla Dargis: “This is essentially a male weepie about strong, simple men and the strong, simple women behind them, and as such it’s platitudinous rubbish.” Unfortunately, such condescension is all too common among a certain segment of our society. (Interestingly, Dargis later concerns herself with an irrelevant by politically correct thought about blue-collar wages—i.e., the money earned by the people she’s just dismissed.)
So forget about what The Times says. Ladder 49 has a lot of heart. It isn't so much scorched by its "weepy" portrayal of single-minded everymen as it is by foul language, heavy drinking, some coarse sexual joking (and loose sexual morals) and the trivialization of what Roman Catholics consider a sacred religious rite.