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Air Force One (1997)

air force oneDIRECTOR: Wolfgang Petersen

CAST: Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close, Wendy Crewson, Liesel Matthews, Dean Stockwell, William H. Macy, Paul Guilfoyle, Xander Berkeley, Philip Baker Hall, Jurgen Prochnow


Air Force One, the third major American action thriller from German director Wolfgang Petersen (following In the Line of Fire and Outbreak), proves that an accomplished action director can turn a flimsy premise into an entertaining ride, smoothly distracting from some plot holes and implausibiliites to turn Air Force One into one of the better of the myriad Die Hard-esque action flicks that have come out in the years since 1988’s Die Hard popularized the basic premise.  It’s not as good as the original Die Hard, but it’s an entertaining ride if you don’t scrutinize everything too closely.

We open with a commando raid of US special forces that captures the genocidal dictator of Kazakhstan, General Radek (Jurgen Prochnow).  Shortly after, at a conference in Moscow, US President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) delivers a bold speech vowing that the US will never negotiate with terrorists, and that their day is over.  But en route back to the States on a trans-Atlantic flight from Moscow to Washington, Air Force One is hijacked by a team of terrorists fanatically loyal to Radek, led by Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman), who intends to hold the first family and the plane’s large entourage hostage to demand Radek’s release from prison.  Marshall himself apparently makes it to his escape pod, but secretly stays onboard so our improbably badass commander-in-chief can engage in lots of John McClane-style cat-and-mouse games with Korshunov’s men.  Meanwhile, Korshunov holds Marshall’s wife (Wendy Crewson) and daughter (Liesel Matthews) hostage, among many others.  In Washington, Vice President Bennett (Glenn Close) tries to defuse the situation, but the unyielding Korshunov vows to execute one hostage every 30 minutes until General Radek is release…a promise he takes very seriously.

As mentioned, Air Force One follows the same basic premise as Die Hard.  A large group of people are taken hostage by a band of foreign terrorists, while one man runs loose as the wrench in their plans, sneaking around and getting in lots of cat-and-mouse fights with henchmen before eventually coming face-to-face with Bad Guy #1.  The twist here is that our hero isn’t down-on-his-luck cop John McClane, but the President of the United States.  While that does a bit to set Air Force One apart, President James Marshall as a character is a bit hard to swallow.  As idealized by the script, and as played by stalwart good guy Harrison Ford, Marshall is a too-good-to-be-true figure who means what he says in his morally righteous speeches, would rather stay onboard to do battle with the terrorists than get in his escape pod, and conveniently turns out to be an ex Navy Seal with pilot and hand-to-hand fighting skills.  Call me cynical, but it’s hard to believe a President who’s this perfect a combination of honest, courageous, and badass.  Some plot developments are equally corny; when the President is forced to choose two wires to cut, with the options yellow, black, red, white, and blue, what do you think the remaining three will turn out to be?

While Air Force One is not as taut and tightly-written as In the Line of Fire, it provides more satisfying action-adventure than the fitfully engaging Outbreak.  Petersen doesn’t bring the same level of claustrophobic tension to this enclosed space that he infused into certain sequences in his 1981 magnum opus Das Boot (centering on a WWII German U-Boat crew), but there are various times in which he ratchets up the tension and excitement enough for us to overlook plot unlikelihoods and just enjoy the ride.  For example, Air Force One makes what might be an implausible near-landing and escape from a US air base in Germany not long after the hijacking, but we accept however unlikely its escape might be because A) the scene is tension-packed enough to get us on the edge of our seat and experiencing an adrenaline rush, and B) if the plane didn’t get back in the air, the movie would be over in about 30 minutes.  Most of the rest of the action isn’t anything special—lots of our hero going mano-a-mano with a series of henchmen, of the sort that was done with more variety and panache in the original Die Hard—but it’s enough to keep us engaged, and later there are more plot complications like a midair refueling, Air Force One dipping into its bag of tricks to dodge missiles, Marshall and company’s scheme to smuggle hostages off the plane in midflight, and a dogfight between Air Force One’s fighter escort and Russian fighters.  The final confrontation between Marshall and Korshunov is satisfying, and Ford gets to deliver a crowd-pleasing one-liner.

Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford.  This is no stretch for him, and he delivers a solid–if not exceptional–performance, doing his usual action hero thing of letting righteous anger swell beneath a gruff exterior.  Likewise, it’s no great revelation that Gary Oldman is convincing as a fanatical terrorist.  Oldman is actually fairly restrained by his standards (certainly in comparison to his previous villainous performance this year in The Fifth Element); frothy outbursts, while not absent, are kept to a minimum.  But Oldman injects Korshunov with a seething intensity that’s more intimidating than hammy scenery-chewing would have been, and the movie gives him a couple monologues to outline his motives (“you who would kill 10,000 Iraqis to save a nickel on a gallon of gas are going to lecture me about the rules of war?”).  Apart from Ford and Oldman, no one else has much to do.  Wendy Crewson and Liesel Matthews do credible jobs as the generic “wife and daughter held hostage by bad guy”.  Glenn Close is the stressed-out Vice President in Washington trying to diffuse the situation surrounded by character actors in underused walk-on roles like Philip Baker Hall and Dean Stockwell (the latter as the annoyingly overdramatic Secretary of Defense who says things like “the buck stops here!”), while on the plane, similarly thankless fates await the President’s entourage of character actors like William H. Macy and Paul Guilfoyle.  Xander Berkeley is a treacherous Secret Service agent, and Jurgen Prochnow, the U-Boat Captain in Das Boot, has a wordless cameo as General Radek.

Air Force One runs a bit too long.  For such a simple, straightforward action flick, it wasn’t necessary for this movie to crack two hours, and momentum drags after the main bad guy is dispatched with a surprisingly sizable chunk of runtime left to go, which is filled with secondary, less interesting side obstacles like a dogfight with Russian fighters and the plane running out of fuel over the Atlantic.  The movie drags on and features about two more climax points after what would be the conventional action movie climax.  Nameless, faceless foes like the MIG pilots don’t engage us like Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman facing off.  The movie doesn’t overstay its welcome to an interminable extent, but a shorter, more streamlined runtime would have made for a tighter, tauter film.

Air Force One is not as well-constructed as Die Hard, but it’s one of the better imitators.  If the action isn’t consistently spectacular or novel, there are enough crackling sequences that generate tension and excitement, Wolfgang Petersen wrings about as much as possible out of the thin and generic premise, and the performances of Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman are about as good as can be expected within the limitations of the material.  The result isn’t a great action thriller, but a reliably entertaining one that’s involving enough for a couple hours of absorption.  Action fans could do a lot worse than catching this flight.

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