As sturdy, weathered, and no-frills as the Reagan-era passenger jet that lends this January-ass film its poetically blunt title, Jean-François Richet’s “Plane” becomes the most airworthy Gerard Butler vehicle this side of “Greenland” by answering a question that Clint Eastwood didn’t even have the courage to ask: What if, instead of ditching US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River like a total loser, Capt. Sully Sullenberger had been man enough to land that baby in the middle of a steroidal ’80s action movie? You know the kind! The sort where vaguely racist man-vs.-army spectacle that finds a couple of jacked-up English-speaking everymen forced to kill their way out of a sweltering foreign jungle full of indigenous militants, and climaxes with the bad guys loading the shoulder-mounted rocket-launchers that Southeast Asian henchmen always keep on hand in case Sylvester Stallone ever decides to reboot “Rambo” again.
No disrespect to Sully, but he probably wouldn’t have been able to save any of his passengers from Philippines’ lawless Jolo island cluster, a wretched hive of scum and villainy that the national army has forfeited to ISIS and its ilk. Luckily enough for the motley crew of hot people and character actors aboard Trailblazer Airlines’ ill-fated New Years Eve flight from Singapore to Tokyo, a swarthy widowed Scotsman by the name of Brodie Torrance (Butler, duh) is in the cockpit tonight, and nothing on Earth will stop him from getting back home to his beloved daughter, whatever her name is.
Nothing!! Not the lightning storm that he’s forced to fly through because his corporate overlords value profits above human lives, or the ultra-violent separatists who control the sweaty jungle where he’s forced to crash land the plane, or even the Luke Cage-sized prisoner (Mike Colter as Louis Gaspare, exuding screen presence for days) who Brodie was transporting on the plane and refuses to let out of handcuffs…even though it’s hard to be a flight-risk without a functioning aircraft, and the guy hasn’t committed any crimes since killing someone 16 years ago.
Needless to say, Brodie — who got stuck flying shit routes after punching a passenger on camera, presumably while in a grief-related tailspin — may not be the only beefcake who finds a shot at redemption on the Jolo islands. Not that it matters. This may come as a shock to you, but this story isn’t particularly concerned with the pathos of its characters. After all, the movie about Sully was called “Sully,” while the movie about Brodie Torrance is called “Plane.” And even so, we still never get to find out what kind of plane it is!
Which isn’t to suggest that Richet’s film is uninterested in how to fly it. Co-written by airport novelist Charles Cumming (who originally envisioned it as a book), “Plane” is dad cinema par avion and par excellence, geared significantly more towards middle-aged crowds hungry for raw meat than it is toward anyone hoping for a goofy cheese-fest. Where other movies like it might be over-eager to get to the action, it’s endearing how patiently this threadbare, 107-minute romp sinks into the cockpit and lets Brodie go over his little checklists like he’s a real pilot. It’s here that Richet proves himself a worthy substitute for Butler’s usual go-to Ric Roman Waugh, and the rhythm of these early scenes helps set the tone for a film that feels plenty grounded long before it’s knocked out of the sky, and remains so well after the killing starts.
Butler knows his strengths like the back of a bad guy’s broken neck, and he’s seldom flexed them better than he does here; he’s become one of 21st century Hollywood’s few bonafide movie stars by embracing the fact that he was so obviously born to be a late 20th century movie star, and it’s endearing to watch him inspire competent schlock that’s willing to match his sincerity punch-for-punch. “Plane” is tense when it’s supposed to be tense, gratuitously violent when it needs to deliver the gore (it’s been a minute since you’ve seen a bad guy’s body get emulsified by heavy artillery like it does here), and the CGI is just strong enough to cling on for dear life during a third act that can afford some dodgy-looking effects.
The supporting cast also adds to the project’s general air of credibility. “Cowboy Bebop” actress Daniella Pineda adds some winsome flair to her thankless role as a flight attendant, “Mulan” breakout Yoson An makes for a sweetly devoted co-pilot, the ever-recognizable Joey Slotnick does fine work as the token “most annoying passenger in the world,” while Tony Goldwyn and Paul Ben-Victor anchor the airline’s crisis response with immaculate cruelty during the scenes they share in a New York board room.
Half-Filipino stuntman and fight coordinator Evan Dane Taylor probably won’t inspire any glowing odes to Southeast Asian representation for his performance as the murderous pirate leader whose livelihood depends on kidnapping white foreigners for ransom money, but the guy looks great on screen, and exudes the clenched sort of villainy that’s needed to sell a movie like this.
That the Puerto Rico-shot “Plane” generally makes the Philippines look like a third-world hellscape whose government won’t lift a finger to save people in a crisis is only somewhat softened by the film’s similarly damning take on American capitalism; it’s a cruel world, and the only real heroes we have are a few sweaty men who are willing to go commando — or at least go “Commando” — when people threaten to kill them with machine guns. “Plane” may not take you anywhere you’ve never gone before, but if you’re buying a ticket to a movie called “Plane,” odds are it will get you exactly where you want to go.
Lionsgate will release “Plane” in theaters on Friday, January 13.
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