Fly Hard Witha Vengeance

Air Force One

area theaters

FOR A MOVIE about an exclusive, high-speed form of transport, Air Force One sure takes a lot of wrong turns. I'm not talking about its unscheduled trip to the would-be neo-communist republic of Kazakhstan, but the whole excursion.

As the guy who gave us Das Boot and In the Line of Fire, director Wolfgang Petersen certainly knows his way around a set-up. The reliable menu of extreme closeups guarantees plenty of tension, while long-takes swirl around the various percolating arguments. Gary Oldman's mad Russian terrorist and Harrison Ford's President James Marshall merely headline a long list of characters talking loudly in tight spaces. There's high-tech junk galore, much of it being exploded in luxury surroundings. And there are even a few decent jokes built around the common person's experience with modern gadgets.

Yet there's no real threat to fuel this vehicle. Sure, it would be bad if The President was hijacked by bullheaded nationalists of a former enemy country. But since this president is the notoriously reclusive and woeful millionaire Harrison Ford, and his antagonist is the notoriously hotheaded Gary Oldman (wearing a cooler haircut), Air Force One is like watching a rehearsal for an idea about the possibility of a potential movie that, in the abstract, might possibly scare people.

One obvious slip-up is the total absence of bad-guy characterization. Oldman's Ivan Korshunov is little more than a rabid follower of the imprisoned General Alexander Radek, a sort of Manuel Noriega of the steppes (played by Das Boot's implacable Jurgen Prochnow without even a single word of dialogue). Within their own territory, these two men--and the Westernized Russian president known as Petrov or Schmetrov or Mr. X-Trov or something like that (Alan Woolf)--are virtually generic, so minor is their dispute. And even though Oldman's manic ranting is somewhat compelling (as manic ranting goes, anyway), it doesn't begin to explain why we should care or worry--even though this villain has a gun and uses it gleefully.

Facing these ciphers is a bunch of White House schemers, both on and off the plane, who hint at all kinds of disagreement without getting to really drool over it. Glenn Close plays a totally supportive vice president opposed by Dean Stockwell's Alexander Haig-ish Secretary of Defense, who seems like a jerk until he starts speaking some sense midway through the action. Ultimately, these are just figureheads, although they're more visible than some of the other war-room mannequins who get a few sentences each to suggest that they're selfish but deeply patriotic.

The film's intended double threat--political tension at home and guns in the air above Eastern Europe--could have made for a nifty conflict, but Air Force One falls back on some awfully dusty gimmicks. The plot systematically evades ideas by becoming a hybrid haunted house/leaky boat adventure: First, there's a little tension about who's hiding where in the plane, and with what horsepower of weapon; and then there's the big question of which parts of the plane will malfunction, and in what order. All of this happens with such precisely engineered rhythm that you could set your watch by the plot twists. And the whole thing becomes not only moronic but redundant, as Petersen deploys his best stunt no less than three times: the president, sometimes accompanied by either a friend or enemy, dangling high above Slobbovia and holding on for dear life.

In the end, this movie left me wishing for James Bond--and then feeling an uncomfortable kinship to those tired old diplomats and movie producers who would like Mother Russia to become the Soviet Union again, giving us a clear enemy to hate. In any case, the hero should be someone more colorful than a stable bureaucrat--a guy who, like Pierce Brosnan's Bond in Goldeneye, can actively dive through the air into, say, a little Beechcraft. Instead, Air Force One gives us little more than a suit flapping in the wind, clinging to a crumbling vehicle and a route so familiar we could sleep through it.

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