Thursday, August 6, 2009


Any resemblance between President Clinton and the president portrayed by Harrison Ford in “Das Boot” director Wolfgang Petersen’s far-fetched, entertaining, but woefully predictable skyjacking saga “Air Force One” (*** out of ****) ends when Ford’s fantastic First Guy starts knocking off villains. Nevertheless, the parallels between President Clinton and President James Marshall appear clearly obvious. Harrison Ford’s President Marshall has a tenacious, headstrong wife in the Hilary mode, and they have a 12-year old daughter. (So did Bill Pullman’s president in “Independence Day.”) Unlike Clinton, President Marshall flew helicopter rescue missions in Vietnam and received a Medal of Honor. No, the filmmakers refuse to identify President James Marshall’s party affiliation, which make “Air Force One” impartially political, while it trumpets America’s anti-terrorist stance. Andrew W. Marlowe’s melodramatic screenplay shows more agility than innovation. While his characters emerge as largely one-dimensional stick figures, the dimensions of their predicaments assume nothing less than cataclysmic proportions. Marlowe’s script keeps Ford leaping through enough flaming hoops to fill three movies. Like several other summer blockbusters, Marlowe’s script does not know when to throw in the towel. Just about everything that can happen aboard “Air Force One” occurs. Presumably, with the recent spate of skyjacking movies, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood appropriated both Air Force One and the President as the pulp of their fictional escapade.

The movie opens in slam-bang style with an elite American commando team parachuting into Kazakhstan at night. Using the latest hi-tech gear, they kill the palace guards and abduct an adversarial Russian leader, General Radek (Jurgen Prochnow of “Das Boot”), who is promptly incarcerated in a Soviet hoosegow. Three weeks later in Moscow, President Marshall stipulates that the U.S. refuses to negotiate with terrorists. Meanwhile, a ruthless ultra-nationalist Radek zealot, Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman of “True Romance”), succeeds in smuggling his bogus TV news crew aboard the most secure plane in the world. A disgruntled Secret Service agent, Gibbs (Xander Berkeley of “L.A. Takedown”), as we later learn, helped these guys obtain their security clearance. Once the plane is airborne, Korshunov and his men commandeer it, kill the pilots, and watch helplessly s the president ejects in his escape pod. (Does anybody remember “Escape from New York?”) Ivan contacts the Vice President (Glenn Close) and vows to kill a hostage every half-hour until Radek walks away from prison. According to Defense Secretary Walter Dean (Dean Stockwell), Radek’s release would bring down the pro-American regime in the Kremlin and bring back the Cold War, so the Russians are reluctant to set him free unless President Marshall makes the request personally for Radek’s release.

The filmmakers cannibalize in typical Hollywood fashion every neat idea from all the other skyjacking thrillers. Generally, “Air Force One” follows the formula of the Kurt Russell hit “Executive Decision.” Both movies start with a commando raid and then shift to terrorists hijacking a jetliner before an unconventional hero makes his entry. You can tell that Marlow evidently watch the Wesley Snipes thriller “Passenger 57” for one scene. Another scene features a stunt that appeared in both “Airport 75” and “Cliffhanger.” The president here imitates the action heroes from the Bruce Willis “Die Hard” franchise and the Steven Seagal “Under Siege” movies. Finally, the “Air Force One” ending should come as no surprise to any “Star Trek” movie veterans. Anybody who thrives on movies like an insomniac will spot these plot elements. Although “Air Force One” borrows heavily from other epics, the staging of the action and some new scenes in the skyjacking formula boost this opus over the rough spots.

Anybody familiar with German director Wolfgang Petersen will recognize the affinity between “Air Force One” and his earlier classic U-boat thriller “Das Boot”/“The Boat” (1981). The casting of “Das Boot” star Jurgen Prochnow as the heinous General Radek aids in this comparison. Moreover, Petersen sends his highly mobile and energetic cameras plunging about the corridors of “Air Force One” with the same dexterity that they swept through the hull of the sub in “Das Boot.” Despite a connect-the-dots plot, Petersen makes every dot a fire storm of intensity. The scene where the President’s jet careens wildly across the airfield in Germany and nearly crashes is pretty harrowing.

Ford’s presidential protagonist is basically Indiana Jones in a suit and tie. The filmmakers rely on Ford’s action hero charisma to compensate for the lack of depth in his inadequately sketched head of state. Shrewdly, they shift gears to the parental side of the chief executive. Ford’s best scenes occur before take-off when he asks about his favorite football game. Although Marshall emerges as a cardboard politician, it’s his “Die Hard” courage that wreathes him with laurels. Unlike those wimpy Jack Ryan movies “Patriot Games” and “A Clear and Present Danger,” Harrison Ford’s hero here kills the villains. The bad guys don’t slip out of Marshall’s clutches and conveniently impale themselves on sharp objects. (Remember the way the “Patriot Games” villain died?) Marshall runs up a body count, kills with a machine gun, snaps necks, and slugs it out with rough and tumble adversaries. Ford is one of the few male box office stars who can shed tears (when Ivan threatens to pull the trigger on his daughter) and not make it look schmaltzy. Ford manages to maintain a stiff upper lip throughout “Air Force One” and his scenes with bad guy Gary Oldman crackle with electricity. Ultimately, however, Ford’s performance qualifies as serviceable, nothing truly special like the cop the played in “The Devil’s Own” (1997).

Good action movies require savage villains, and the best action movies boast implacably evil fiends. Gary Oldman is one of the most underrated actors working in movies. As Ivan, Oldman registers a ten on the skullduggery scale. Earlier, he menacing Bruce Willis in the operatically chic Luc Besson science fiction saga “The Fifth Element,” but his bad guy was more farcical than fiendish. Nothing funny characterizes Oldman’s irredeemable Russian fanatic in “Air Force One.” He kills two hostages at point blank range, and then tries to soft soak the president’s impressionable daughter into believing that he deserves sympathy. Like Harrison Ford’s James Marshall, Gary Oldman’s Ivan Korshunov is physically powerful but theatrically hollow. Nevertheless, Oldman mixes malevolence with sagacity and a great deal of deception to make one of the summer’s more frightening villains.

Glenn Close as Vice President Kathryn Bennett is the real casting coup in “Air Force One.” Close manages to hold her own in a room packed with veteran male character actors like Dean Stockwell who constantly bullies her to usurp presidential authority. Moreover, Close’s Vice President conducts herself with dignity rather than hysterics, a rare treat in a male-oriented action movie. If any performer or character in “Air Force One” may be said to shoulder the burden of the suspense, Glenn Close does as the Vice President. The moment when she could assume the presidency is explosive stuff. Former “Miami Vice” regular Xander Berkeley makes an effectively treacherous Secret Service agent. One major plot loophole in “Air Force One” is that the filmmakers never explain why Agent Gibbs aided Korshunov. Furthermore, Petersen and Marlowe drop the ball on Berkeley’s villain because he passes up so many great chances to kill the President and assure Ivan of success. Poor writing is to blame here along with the gratitude’s need to create yet another one of those post-ending showdowns. Wendy Crewson is persuasively stalwart yet credibly vulnerable as the president’s gracefully aging wife, and Dean Stockwell’s terrier-like Defense Secretary enlivens the chaos on the ground for the Vice President.

No summer action movie would cut the mustard without digital special effects. The computer generated graphics in “Air Force One” are top-notch. When the movie roams outside of the pressurized cabins and conference rooms, the filmmakers put us in a nether world that resembles “Star Wars.” The night skies above Moscow are cluttered with thick clouds and the skies that far up have a creepy quality that enhances the tragic nature of “Air Force One.” The F-15s swoop into place alongside the President’s jet like star fighters and later peel off to intercept enemy Russian MIGs. The introduction of a heavy fuel tanker recalls the initial appearance from overhead of Darth Vader’s space ship in the preliminary moments from George Lucas’ “Star Wars.”

Big screen action movies fans that prefer for their heroes and villains to battle to the death will enjoy “Air Force One,” but they are bound to complain when the movie shifts away from the presidential jet. Moviegoers who keep abreast of all the plot twists and turns in similar movies may grow impatient at times in “Air Force One.” You’ll know what Harrison Ford has up his sleeve so to speak when he stares at a leaky carton of milk. If you’ve not seen any of the recent skyjacking movies, like the director Stuart Baird’s “Executive Decision,” you may find yourself overrating a simply good movie as a great epic. “Planet of the Apes” composer Jerry Goldsmith’s majestic music enriches the film’s atmosphere, and lenser Michael Ballhaus’ widescreen Technicolor photography captures just about every scene from the right perspective. Sadly, a huge film flub occurs in “Air Force One” when the bad guys shoot holes through a certain door, then moments later those holes vanish when the skyjackers throw those doors open to confront the hostages.

Although certainly not the most original skyjacking melodrama, “Air Force One” manages to add elements to the formula and boasts enough visceral R-rated violence to keep you distracted throughout its 124-minute running time.

No comments: