by Ed Symkus

Let's hear it for a film that wants to put its story on track from the get-go. This firefighter drama starts with a big conflagration, loads up the screen with terrifying explosions within a big building, and before a few minutes have gone by, has its lead firefighter, Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) trapped inside.

It's a great beginning, but even though there's plenty of action, some original fiery effects, generally good acting, and a high degree of tension, there are too many misjudgments in putting the film together to keep it from being entirely engrossing.

The motif of jumping back and forth in time -- from Jack's current predicament to a series of events over the previous decade - works well. Director Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting) has fashioned a successful method of combining the then and now by fading to black each time the film shifts between them.

The first flashback goes to Jack's first day on the job, when he arrives at the station as a probationary firefighter, or proby. John Travolta's entrance as Chief Kennedy is a funny, disheveled one, but it's not long before a wealth of serious information about the business is shared with viewers. It's explained that more than 4,000 calls a year come in to this busy Baltimore station. A lesson is given on the difference between a "pipeman" and a "truckie." And the film goes for realism: hard, fast breathing is heard; panicky running is seen; rats show up in the middle of smoky confusion. Hand-held camerawork takes viewers right into the chaos of a fire. And when the action gets going, multiple cameras are moving around, seldom staying still for more than a few seconds.

The main story involves Jack's dilemma. The chief calmly tells his crew to "get your asses in there and find him." The plan is to use blueprints to figure out where he is in the building, but even if they knew the exact point, there's still a fire raging above while he's somewhere down below.

In the flashbacks, the atmosphere is mostly much lighter -- the firefighters show off their skill at downing liquor after a hard day, they play pranks on each other, a pick-up scene in a supermarket leads to Jack's marriage to Linda (Jacinda Barrett), a backyard family barbecue looks like a Pepsi commercial. But there's an equal amount of melodrama and clich & eacute;s thrown in, too -- a firefighter parade, a pregnancy, some marital strife because out of the blue, after many years, Linda suddenly starts freaking out over the dangers of the job.

Even the acting suffers a little when Travolta, in a supporting role, overdoes it while shouting to maintain control of his men during one flashback. But the opposite is true in a tender scene with Phoenix and newcomer Spencer Berglund, who plays his son Nick, where the two talk quietly about the pitfalls of a firefighter's life. In fact, before it's all over, a body count has built up. This turns into a horror film with fire as the monster, ever ready to grab an unsuspecting victim.

The story could have ended in a variety of ways. The one chosen could be unpopular with mainstream audiences. Suffice it to say, things get maudlin. If that isn't bad enough, it's followed up by a sequence featuring a soggy, anthemic pop song that's supposed to smooth things over. It's a mistake that only makes the ending worse.

Publication date: 09/30/04

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