Skip to main content

Nobody could've landed that plane like I did.


Flight
(2012)

Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action filmmaking shoes up the same problems as his last couple of pre-motion capture pictures; a tasty premise, but what do you do with it?


Flight could have been a great movie. The first thirty minutes are as good as anything in any film released in 2012. Zemeckis has commented that beginning with a huge action sequence didn’t matter, since the personal story that follows is so powerful. But the problem is, the rest of the movie only fully engages sporadically. And when it does, it’s all about courtroom theatrics; not with the character arc it’s trying to justify.


The problem, as ever, is cliché, and in this case more particularly that of Hollywood moralism. Having set up a magnificent anti-hero, the script by (recovering addict) John Gatins sets on a course of sub-Leaving Las Vegas indulgence before finding a point of redemption that everyone can get behind. This is what mainstream movies with “edge” have come to; in order to justify the payload of an out-of-control character, one who doesn’t conform to the status quo, he must be rigorously punished (even at his own hand) in order to show the audience how they should behave. Don’t trust your viewer to work out that he’s in the wrong; have it spelled out by his own realisation. Movies used to be restricted by the edict that the criminal couldn’t be seen to win, no matter how likeable (see The Italian Job, or The Lavender Hill Mob), but the late ‘60s and early ‘70s saw a brief trend of trusting the audience to judge a character’s foibles and flaws for themselves, whether the movie served up retribution and repentance or not.


Flight struggles between this impulse to credit its audience with intelligence and another to treat them with kid gloves. It ends up flailing as it ultimately chooses to kowtow to the mainstream of presumed acceptability. The idea of an intoxicated pilot (Whip Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington) who pulls off a feat of incredible skill and then has his heroic status called into question, is a compelling one and Gatins deserves enormous credit for it. But where he goes wrong is making him an addict. As much as the movie appears to be refraining from taking the moral high ground at the outset, it ends up having to depict Whip as extremely fucked up. How might the scenario have been more nuanced if he was just an occasional party animal, no doubt lacking an appropriate compass as regards his responsibilities, but not someone we could all point at as being completely out-of-control.


The midsection of the film drags us through Whip’s states of stupor to the point of disinterest. He’s no longer an intriguing character but a means for Denzel to show off his drunk acting. This kind of thing quickly became a bore when Nic Cage was going off on one to Oscar glory. No doubt, substance abuse isn’t something that the movies should extol. But showing every abuser as inveterately doomed is a false play. Particularly when we know Whip has been behaving like this for a good decade or more without incident. Suddenly it has to hit home to tell us why he’s so screwed up. There has to be a more insightful way to address such a subject than adopting polar extremes. But few Hollywood movies have been able to tackle addiction without hyperbole. It takes an indie picture like Drugstore Cowboy (now getting on for a quarter of a century old) to say something insightful about the mundanity of the lifestyle.


Flight’s intentions are worthy, but every other scene or supporting character hits a wall of over-familiarity. Zemeckis soundtracks the movie with every unsubtle tune he can think of (outdoing Killing them Softly), and requires his characters to indulge in worn-out theatrics on how they either will (John Goodman’s entertaining but only-in-movies pusher man) or won’t (Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly) endorse Whip’s lifestyle. The performances are strong all-round, but the cast can only do so much to undercut how rote they all are. James Badge Dale has a memorable scene as a stairwell cancer patient, but it’s the point where the film begins to drift into overstatement. When Denzel starts knocking back a 1.5 litre bottle of Smirnoff in his car, realisation dawns that Zemeckis mush have insisted that a 1 litre bottle wouldn’t be enough to tell us that addiction is bad.


Zemeckis is a technically masterful filmmaker but, like sometime mentor Steven Spielberg, his blind spot is the script department. Maybe he should go back to writing his own, which is where his greatest artistic successes lay. He’s made a film that looks double the budget it is, and it is exquisitely crafted, but his characters hit every single obvious note imaginable. It’s not brave to have a character continually fall of the wagon and reject offers of help if life-affirming awareness is finally reached (the last scene is particularly trite). Wouldn’t it be braver, or more interesting, to end at a point where we the audience knows Whip is wrong but he is let off the hook? That’s what a good ‘70s movie would have done.

*** 

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.