Sunday, June 24, 2012

"Air Force One" (1997)

Starring Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman and Glenn Close
Written by Andrew W. Marlowe
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Rated R - Violence, language
Running Time: 125 Minutes

"Die Hard" pretty much created its own subgenre.  Throughout the 1990s, there were plenty of "Die Hard on a ____" films.  "Under Siege" was "Die Hard on a boat," "Sudden Death" was "Die Hard in a hockey stadium" and so on.  1997's "Air Force One" is pretty well "Die Hard on a plane."

President of the United States James Marshall (Harrison Ford) is in Moscow delivering a speech in the wake of a successful joint military operation to capture the rogue Russian hardline General Radek (Jurgen Prochnow).  In his speech, he paints a picture of a new American foreign policy - zero tolerance for terrorism.

Once Air Force One is airborne, a Russian news crew aboard is revealed to be a group of terrorists loyal to Radek.  They kill much of the crew and capture many of the President's closest advisers, as well as his wife Grace (Wendy Crewson) and daughter Alice (Liesel Matthews), and demand Radek's release from prison.  The leader of the terrorists, Ivan (Gary Oldman) warns that a hostage will be killed every half hour until he has received word that Radek is free.

Unbeknownst to Egor, Marshall has managed to hide in the bowels of the plane and escape capture.  While Egor negotiates with Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close), Marshall begins to retake the plane all by himself, using his experience as a US Marine.  Meanwhile, in Washington, Bennett faces a political crisis as Secretary of Defense Walter Dean (Dean Stockwell) attempts to usurp command of the situation from her at a critical time.

With his wife, daughter and political career at stake, and lives hanging in the balance, Marshall must face down the terrorists alone, and race against time before they kill more of the hostages.

Let's be perfectly clear what we're talking about here.  "Air Force One" is a pretty ridiculous film. It might be "Die Hard on a plane," but it is most certainly not as good as "Die Hard," as fun as it may be. The script occasionally diverts into subplots that aren't particularly engrossing, the special effects are serviceable but not noteworthy (though there's one atrocious shot at the end that should have embarrassed the filmmakers even in 1997), parts of the film feel particularly dated (the satellite phone)...  and yet despite all this, "Air Force One" remains remarkably entertaining probably because it is so gung-ho about its own absurdity.

"Air Force One" is, through and through, an action film.  Though it tries to have some intelligent things to say about right and wrong, and it tries to humanize its villain somewhat, at its core it is definitely about gunfights and explosions.  To this end, Wolfgang Petersen directs the shit out of this script.  Things start out with a bang as we get to watch a couple of Special Forces teams run a nighttime raid on Radek's mansion.  This sets the tone for the action pieces to follow, as it's quick and explosive and edited with a pounding rhythm.  The terrorist siege of Air Force One itself is a fantastic sequence, and the terrorists even come extremely close to losing.

Much of the action throughout the middle section of the film is smaller.  Marshall takes on the terrorists in several one-on-one fights throughout the plane, usually attempting to separate them from each other to even the odds.  There are some clever twists to keep things from getting too repetitive - Marshall uses the plane's unique defensive capabilities to cause turbulence to get him out of a jam, he dumps fuel to force the terrorists to lower the plane to a safe jumping altitude, and so on.

There are also some aerial dogfight battles, and the zip-line finale, which are ridiculous but fun.  Petersen keeps things moving constantly, and the action sequences move at a breakneck speed.

The cast is pretty excellent.  Harrison Ford seems to actually be having some fun, as opposed to many of the films he's appeared in recently.  Though this is far from his meatiest role, he's still able to hold the screen like few other stars can.  When he's on, he's on.  Likewise, Gary Oldman totally throws himself into his role.  He gets to chew the scenery all throughout the film, and as always, he's a total blast to watch.  Oldman totally owns every scene he's in, no matter what he's doing.  When he angrily chastises his men for failing to capture Marshall, when he's coldly executing a hostage, when he's smugly negotiating with Bennett... The script tries to give him a couple of sympathetic moments; he has a scene with Marshall's daughter where he describes his own family and how much he loves them, and that his motivations are patriotic rather than out of evil.  But then, the best villains are the ones who think they're doing good, right?

Glenn Close has a rather thankless role.  There's not much for her to grab on to, but she does throw some intensity in there to keep even her scenes that are some of the film's driest from being total failures.  The rest of the cast is filled out with familiar and recognizable character actors like Xander Berkley, Dean Stockwell, Paul Guilfoyle, Philip Baker Hall and William H. Macy.  As always, so many recognizable actors can make the film feel comfortable, but also a little too familiar.  These are actors playing characters you've all seen before, which is probably why they were chosen for these particular roles.

One of the absolute best aspects of "Air Force One," which quite possibly saves it from being even more of a middle-of-the-road action picture is Jerry Goldsmith's propulsive score.  Goldsmith famously only had a couple of weeks to compose the score after the previous score was rejected.  What he ended up crafting is shamelessly patriotic, just as un-subtle as the rest of the film, but also just as fun.  It's big, loud, brassy and as with some of Goldsmith's best work, moves with a pounding and steady rhythm.  That steady rhythm also helps in that the action sequences almost seem edited around them - though the opposite is more likely.  The way the action seems to move with the music is energizing, and helps really sell a lot of the ridiculous stuff going on in this film.  There are some shades of Goldsmith's similar "Star Trek: First Contact" in there, to my ears, but since that's also one of my favorites of his, "Air Force One" is in good company.

Overall, "Air Force One" is pretty ridiculous.  And yet, it embraces that ridiculousness and crafts a fun action thriller around it.  With some solid action sequences, scenery-chewing villainy and a fine and familiar cast, "Air Force One" is the kind of action-movie comfort food that's easy to digest.  Turn off your brain, turn up the surround system, and kick some ass for America.