Skip to main content

You’re a monster, and my father is a great man. You’re nothing like my father!


Air Force One
(1997)

President Harrison Ford takes down the terrorist. This year’s “terrorists take over the White House” movies require the President to be saved by brave Special Forces types. Not so back in the ‘90s, when Russkies assumed control of Air Force One. Back when Indiana Jones was a ‘Nam vet President and recipient of the Medal of Honor, more than qualified to kick-ass.

Wolfgang Peterson’s Die Hard-on-the-President’s-plane was such a big hit (and not just in its core US market) that I wondered if I had missed something when I came away from seeing it non-plussed. I’m a fairly willing audience for Die Hard-derivative movies, even knowing that most of them turn out to be shitty. But Air Force One, despite a goofy premise only topped by Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, possessed a prestige cast (led by Ford, Glenn Close and Gary Oldman) and a director who had previously scored critically and commercially with a political thriller (In the Line of Fire). It sounded like it might work; why else would it attract such talent?

The only conclusion can be; handsome paydays. Andrew W Marlowe may have partially redeemed himself with the TV series Castle, but Air Force One is contusion of half-baked set pieces and ultra-corny sentiment. Peterson lends it a certain gloss (although the CGI is frequently dreadful), and a couple of the actors nobly attempt to liven the proceedings up (Oldman’s terrorist leader Korshunov chews the scenery, just not quite with the abandon seen when working for Luc Besson, while Dean Stockwell’s Secretary of Defense is winningly unsentimental about the plane’s chances and political realities) but Ford is less than engaging. He’s moved into the earnest bore period in his career, typified by Jack Ryan and Richard Kimble; films that make the right kind of signals to attract an audience but which he can sleepwalk through. It must have given him a false sense of security, until his box office clout dried up at the turn of the millennium.

Ford’s President Marshall has set his mast out as a humanitarian, interventionist leader; he has zero tolerance for terrorism, against the advice of his staff. And he will be neither bucked nor bowed by economic or political pressures. Rather, he is led by a higher moral imperative; to do what is right. He has the prescience and clear judgement to make this sort of call, you see; it isn’t just grandstanding because Harrison Ford is always sincere. Consequently, he’s inclined to deliver nonsensical lines in his addresses that have the appearance of sage truths (“Peace isn’t merely the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice”). The only thing missing from his mission statement is that God is on his side and that he prays every night.

You see, his Damascus moment results from the US’s delayed involvement in deposing and capturing Jurgen Prochnow’s General Radek. An empathic President Marshall recognises that this slowness to act indirectly resulted in much suffering and death. Radek had set himself up as dictator in Kazakhstan (Who knows anything about Kazakhstan, right? No one will care if they’re the bad guys!) and it takes a joint Russian-American operation to bring him down. This is the classic Hollywood “terrorists as villains” approach; make a nationality the antagonists as long as, at some point, you make it clear that their entire country is not evil. It doesn’t matter if the audience takes away Russians=bad guys, you’ve absolved yourself of any responsibility.

As with Olympus Has Fallen, the villain of the piece is intent on unifying his country (there Korea, here the Soviet Union); the first step towards this is the release of his beloved General Radek. And, as with that film, he gains access to the President’s inner sanctum with astonishing ease (anything else and you wouldn’t have a movie). As usual, there’s a traitor on the inside, and as usual his motivations are at best broad strokes at worst nonsensical. Both films make an idle gesture of balance by suggesting that the President, and America, is guilty of villainy and atrocities (Korshunov brings up Iraq), but of course we don’t really believe this. We’re talking about President Harrison Ford here. He agonises over his every action and endures a constipated expression to prove it.

The supporting cast are underwritten and fail to make much impression accordingly. It’s not as if Ford and Oldman have any great lines (“Get off my plane!” anyone?), and they’re the leads. Prochnow’s is little more than a cameo, William H Macy has a nice noble moment or two and Xander Berkeley does what he does best. Close surely had a patio that needed paving as she called upon merely to adopt her best steely gaze.

Peterson and Marlowe have to jump through hoops to try and make this premise work. The President needs to be on the loose, continually evading capture and engaging in altercations with terrorists, for at least an hour or you don’t have a movie. This is never very convincing, particularly when Korshunov seals him in the lower deck. There’s the occasional ruthless ultimatum, eliciting a John McClane-seque stoical response at first (but, as with Olympus Has Fallen , the President pussies out when his family are threatened; what kind of President does that?)

We know the President did the right thing to stay on board, as a plump aide thanks him personally (her face is later adorned with a hilariously beatific smile as she parachutes earthwards to safety). The odd instance of plotting suggests the writer may have some wit to him (Marshall’s “I’m counting on you, red, white and blue” when he’s hotwiring the fuel tank) but you’re mostly left with the impression of empty-headed “America, the beautiful”. Certainly, this is reinforced by Peterson’s decision to cut back to whooping and cheering in the White House Situation Room every time the President takes out a bad guy or a potential disaster is diffused.  

It’s not just the lack of self-consciousness; Marlowe doesn’t have an original idea. The President is even called on to pilot the plane, just as Kurt Russell was during his terrorist encounter in the previous year’s Executive Decision. Apparently the Department of Defense co-operated in the making of the film; presumably their failure to suggest any remedies for its incoherence of plot was by the bye as long as the whole was resolutely patriotic. They were hardly going to tell Hollywood producers how Air Force One actually functions, were they?

Jerry Goldsmith’s score underpins the film’s air of avowed patriotism in a vomit-inducingly stone-faced manner. Still, rather him than Randy Newman (Peterson rejected Newman’s score, so Goldsmith was a last minute replacement).

Despite the overall nonsensicality, the President-goes-all-John McClane scenes are reasonably engaging. It’s when Korshunov catches him that Marlowe’s script begins to test the patience. Maybe the problem is that the jingoistic claptrap the film embraces resists irreverence and outrageousness of the kind these types of film need to really work. If you’re going to treat a B-movie premise like this over-earnestly, you’re doomed from start.

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.

No time to dilly-dally, Mr Wick.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)
(SPOILERS) At one point during John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, our eponymous hero announces he needs “Guns, lots of guns” in a knowing nod to Keanu Reeves’ other non-Bill & Ted franchise. It’s a cute moment, but it also points to the manner in which the picture, enormous fun as it undoubtedly is, is a slight step down for a franchise previously determined to outdo itself, giving way instead to something more self-conscious, less urgent and slightly fractured.

She worshipped that pig. And now she's become him.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018)
(SPOILERS) Choosing to make The Girl in the Spider’s Web following the failure of the David Fincher film – well, not a failure per se, but like Blade Runner 2049, it simply cost far too much to justify its inevitably limited returns – was a very bizarre decision on MGM’s part. A decision to reboot, with a different cast, having no frame of reference for the rest of the trilogy unless you checked out the Swedish movies (or read the books, but who does that?); someone actually thought this would possibly do well? Evidently the same execs churning out desperately flailing remakes based on their back catalogue of IPs (Ben-Hur, The Magnificent Seven, Death Wish, Tomb Raider); occasionally there’s creative flair amid the dross (Creed, A Star is Born), but otherwise, it’s the most transparently creatively bankrupt studio there is.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

I mean, I think anybody who looked at Fred, looked at somebody that they couldn't compare with anybody else.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) 
(SPOILERS) I did, of course, know who Fred Rogers was, despite being British. Or rather, I knew his sublimely docile greeting song. How? The ‘Burbs, naturally. I was surprised, given the seeming unanimous praise it was receiving (and the boffo doco box office) that Won’t You Be My Neighbor? didn’t garner a Best Documentary Oscar nod, but now I think I can understand why. It’s as immensely likeable as Mr Rogers himself, yet it doesn’t feel very substantial.

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

I think, I ruminate, I plan.

The Avengers 6.5: Get-A-Way
Another very SF story, and another that recalls earlier stories, in this case 5.5: The See-Through Man, in which Steed states baldly “I don’t believe in invisible men”. He was right in that case, but he’d have to eat his bowler here. Or half of it, anyway. The intrigue of Get-A-Way derives from the question of how it is that Eastern Bloc spies have escaped incarceration, since it isn’t immediately announced that a “magic potion” is responsible. And if that reveal isn’t terribly convincing, Peter Bowles makes the most of his latest guest spot as Steed’s self-appointed nemesis Ezdorf.