movie review

Plane Good

Gerard Butler. Mike Colter. Plane. Photo: Kenneth Rexach/Lionsgate

Plane is a movie for your lizard brain — the part of you that craves basic sensations. The part that expresses itself in grunts. The part that wants to paw anxiously at a theater screen while muttering “Plane …” This is a good thing. The highest compliment I can pay the new Gerard Butler action film is that it lives up to the conceptual purity of its title.

Over the years, Butler has become proficient at playing exceptional Average Joes: rough-hewn, relatable Everymen thrust into extraordinary circumstances that require dramatic feats of skill and bravery. This is a time-honored type in American movies. Back when everyone tried to be Bruce Willis, it was annoyingly ubiquitous, but our current Über-jacked cinematic landscape has less and less use for such raggedy heroes. This, of course, adds to our affection. These men have acquired a nostalgic glow, and Butler in particular has become a kind of people’s avatar for the way action movies used to be. When he’s onscreen, you can taste the stale coffee and the flop sweat. He’s the demoted Secret Service agent (in the White House–invasion movie Olympus Has Fallen); the separated dad trying to make things right (in the comet-disaster epic Greenland); the newly promoted, not-ready-for-prime-time submarine commander (in the maritime-action flick Hunter Killer). In Plane, he’s Captain Brodie Torrance, a middle-aged single dad and pilot stuck flying a Singapore-to-Tokyo route on New Year’s Eve for the low-rent airline Trailblazer. He lost his spot at the fancier airlines, we learn, after punching out an abusive passenger.

There are only 14 travelers on this particular flight, which enhances the sense that Torrance is a man out of step with the times: He can fly the damn plane, but it’s not as if anyone wants to ride it. And because the flight has so few passengers, the powers that be at Trailblazer refuse to let Torrance fly around a nasty-looking storm hovering in his path, as the additional fuel required would cost too much. So he flies straight into it and — after a harrowing sequence that serves as a reminder to never, ever unfasten your seat belt during turbulence — is forced to crash-land on an island in the Sulu Archipelago, a lawless area of the Philippines run by what Torrance’s co-pilot (Yoson An) calls “separatists and criminals.” As Torrance and the surviving passengers try to figure out how to let the world know where they are, they become targets of a local militia that likes to kidnap foreigners and hold them for ransom while threatening to kill them.

Much of Plane does not actually take place on a plane, but there’s little cause for alarm. The events on the ground maintain the basic, brute pleasures of the initial premise. French director Jean-François Richet has made a career out of classed-up, well-acted action flicks (he made the slick 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13, starring Laurence Fishburne and Ethan Hawke, and the 2008 real-life, two-part French crime epic Mesrine, starring Vincent Cassel) and allows the characters just enough shading to keep things hopping along. We learn that Torrance is a proud Scot who once served in Britain’s Royal Air Force, and we know he can hold his own — though he does gag a bit after his first kill on the island.

Luckily, one of the passengers happens to be Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter), who was being extradited to the U.S. for homicide when the plane went down. Torrance finds himself in the rare situation when having a murderer as a companion may come in handy. Colter, perhaps best known as the star of the Marvel series Luke Cage, is soft-spoken and has an easygoing physicality that makes for a nice match with Butler; his Gaspare seems like a man who could, at any given moment, give you a quiet chuckle or a death blow. His developing relationship with Torrance is compelling and handled without much fuss: It’s all sweaty stares, brief exchanges, and the occasional knowing grin between two beefy guys in a temporary marriage of convenience who grow to respect (and kill alongside) each other.

Whenever Plane follows Torrance, Gaspare, and the other passengers, it has a streamlined confidence that keeps the action interesting and suspenseful. How on earth are these people going to survive this ordeal? Will Gaspare abandon Torrance and the others? How will anyone get off this island with their head still attached to their neck? The leader of the local militia, the ruthless Datu Junmar (Evan Dane Taylor), doesn’t state political aims or ideology. He just wants hostages and money, and he doesn’t seem shy about delivering on the promise to kill prisoners — or his own men — if he doesn’t get his way. Things get a little messier whenever the film cuts back to Trailblazer headquarters in New York, where a crisis-control expert (Tony Goldwyn) puts together an elaborate rescue mission involving a heavily armed group of international mercenaries. Such developments feel as though they belong in a bigger film, one with a wider scope; a larger, more famous cast; and brighter, brassier, Bruckheimerian production values. Not in a down-and-dirty actioner called Plane.

It’s a good thing, then, that Richet understands that whatever thrills this movie can provide will be cheap ones. He stuffs the picture full of them — burly, single-shot beatdowns, beheadings, stabbings, heads crushed with giant hammers. Baddies are plugged with machine-gun rounds so powerful their corpses bounce off cars. There’s at least one spectacular instance of vehicular assault.

It’s okay to enjoy this stuff when it’s done with such an honest desire to entertain. The violence is visceral and presented with just enough authenticity to make you quiver. The context, however, is unreal enough that you don’t have to think too hard about it. You weren’t supposed to be thinking anyway. Plane.

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Plane Good