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

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

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…

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

Nobody trusts anybody now. We’re all very tired.

The Thing (1982)
(SPOILERS) The Thing has been thesis fodder for years, as much so as any given pre-1990 Cronenberg movie, and has popularly been seen as a metaphor for AIDS and even climate change. Now, of course, provided we’re still in a world where film is studied in the aftermath and we haven’t ball been assimilated in one form or another, such staples are sure to be scrubbed away by an inundation of bids to apply the Coronavirus to any given text (much in the way Trump has been popularly overwritten onto any particular invidious fictional figure you care to mention in the most tedious shorthand). And sure, there’s fertile ground here, with rampant paranoia and social distancing being practised among those in Outpost 31 (the “virus” can even be passed on by pets). That flexibility, however, is the key to the picture’s longevity and effectiveness; ultimately, it is not the nature of the threat (as undeniably and iconically gruey and Lovecraftian as it is), but rather the response of…

Oh man, they wronged you. Why they gotta be like that? You exude a cosmic darkness.

Mandy (2018)
(SPOILERS) Sometimes you're left scratching your head over a movie, wondering what it was about it that had others rapturously raving while you were left shrugging. I at least saw the cult appeal of Panos Cosmatos’ previous picture, Beyond the Black Rainbow, which inexorably drew the viewer in with a clinically psychedelic allure before going unceremoniously off the boil with a botched slasher third act. Mandy, though, has been pronounced one of the best of the year, with a great unhinged Nic Cage performance front and centre – I can half agree with the latter point – but it's further evidence of a talented filmmaker slave to a disconcertingly unfulfilling obsession with retro-fashioning early '80s horror iconography.

It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it? Other people dying.

Game of Thrones Season Six
(SPOILERS) The most distracting thing about Season Six of Game of Thrones (and I’ve begun writing this at the end of the seventh episode, The Broken Man) is how breakneck its pace is, and how worryingly – only relatively, mind – upbeat it’s become. Suddenly, characters are meeting and joining forces, not necessarily mired in pits of despair but actually moving towards positive, attainable goals, even if those goals are ultimately doomed (depending on the party concerned). It feels, in a sense, that liberated from George R R Martin’s text, producers are going full-throttle, and you half-wonder if they’re using up too much plot and revelation too quickly, and will run out before the next two seasons are up. Then, I’m naturally wary of these things, well remembering how Babylon 5 suffered from packing all its goods into Season Four and was then given an ultimately wasted final season reprieve.

I’ve started this paragraph at the end of the eighth episode, No One (t…