Directed by Jay Russell, starring Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Billy Burke, Balthazar Getty, Tim Guinee, Kevin Champman and Jay Hernandez.

Called to a savage warehouse blaze, Baltimore fireman Jack Morrison (Phoenix) becomes separated from his colleagues as he searches for a person trapped on one of the upper floors. He finds the injured man and manages to winch him to safety. But before Morrison can escape himself, there is an explosion; the floor gives way and he is hurled down to a lower level. Badly injured, he manages to get in radio contact with his fire chief Mike Kennedy (Travolta), and so begins the race against time to safe his life, with Jack thinking back on it as the minutes tick away.

No amount of special effects can save a dud film and 'Ladder 49' rings plenty of alarm bells for all the wrong reasons. For a start the casting is a mistake. Have Travolta fighting for his life and Phoenix's character trying to save him and there may have been some hope. Instead you have Phoenix lacking the kind of presence needed to carry a lead action role and Travolta playing a character that is so woefully underdeveloped that there's no chemistry between the two men.

There's also a difference between low-key and flat and this script is the latter - with the action rendered episodic by Morrison's predicament, you find yourself wishing that the story would stay in the warehouse and avoid the many dull flashback scenes. In an attempt to combine high temperature spectacle with heartfelt drama, director Russell has failed on both counts: the fires never really grip you and the emotional connection with the characters isn't what it should be.

The noblest of professions deserved 20 times better.

Harry Guerin