Since Hitchcock shuffled off his mortal coil and the James Bond pix lost their Cold War raison d'etre, the void for witty and romantic actioners has yawned wide. Earlier this summer, "True Lies" produced strong B.O. results, but for less than a quarter of that price, "Terminal Velocity" should deliver more bang for the buck.

Since Hitchcock shuffled off his mortal coil and the James Bond pix lost their Cold War raison d’etre, the void for witty and romantic actioners has yawned wide. Earlier this summer, “True Lies” produced strong B.O. results on its $ 100 million-plus investment, but for less than a quarter of that price, “Terminal Velocity,” a snappy, thrill-packed political espionage/heist picture, should deliver more bang for the buck.

Set in the spectacularly cinematic world of skydiving, “Velocity” starts in high gear, with an intrigue involving damsels in distress and midnight landings of jumbo jets in a desolate Arizona desert. Faster than you can yell “Jump!” skydiving instructor Ditch Brodie (Charlie Sheen) is taking a winsome novice jumper named Chris (Nastassja Kinski) on a danger-filled leap into post-Cold War politics, murder and a bounty of tongue-in-cheek homages to Hitch and Ian Fleming.

Starting with a body switcheroo straight out of “Vertigo,” the romp turns into a “From Russia With Love”-meets-“North by Northwest” political thriller before landing firmly in “Goldfinger” heist-of-the-century territory. But rather than feeling stitched together from cribbed sources, “Velocity” is a thoroughly amusing and exhilarating cliffhanger.

Sheen finds himself a classically Hitchcockian wrong man, employed as the ultimate fall guy (pun intended) for Kinski’s earnest KGB agent, who’s trying to save Russia from a massive hit on its already shaky treasury. The unlikely scenario is no obstacle to a rousing good time: As Ditch and Chris chase the evildoers and in turn are chased by same , pic is filled with punchy gag-filled dialogue and sensational action bits, both in the air and on the ground.

Though opening minutes are less than sure-footed, by the time sinister baddies — peroxided killer Kerr (Christopher McDonald) and slippery D.A. investigator Ben Pinkwater (wink-wink) (James Gandolfini) — are in pursuit, the kicks have begun, with wild stunts involving jet-propelled vehicles, night drops into industrial smokestacks, shootouts and the jaw-dropping finale involving two planes, a Cadillac and an unwieldy locked car trunk.

Pic’s pleasures come as a welcome surprise, given the uninspired title, director Deran Serafian’s previous feature credits (“Death Warrant,””Roadflower, “”Gunmen”), Sheen’s somewhat worn-out welcome in the action genre after clinkers like “Navy SEALS,””The Rookie” and, especially, “The Chase,” and Kinski’s uncertain status after a virtual disappearance from Hollywood. ‘Velocity” is filled with good news on all their accounts.

Serafian’s sharp, lean direction is perfectly matched to David Twohy’s clever , well-paced script, and should put the helmer onto the A-list of actioner talents. Romantic leads are in on the jokes and up to pic’s physical demands. Kinski will win kudos for a solid femme fatale turn, while Sheen’s glib, sexy persona suits the befuddled but courageous flyboy.

Southwest locations provide a colorful backdrop, and Oliver Wood’s action-intense lensing keeps up with the imposing challenges of the stunt-heavy material. Picture stays impressively aloft until fade-out.

Terminal Velocity

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures presentation of an Interscope Communications/Polygram Filmed Entertainment production. Produced by Scott Kroopf, Tom Engelman. Executive producers, Ted Field, David Twohy, Robert W. Cort. Co-producer, Joan Bradshaw. Directed by Deran Serafian. Screenplay, Twohy.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Oliver Wood; editors, Frank J. Urioste, Peck Prior; music, Joel McNeely; production design, David L. Snyder; art direction, Sarah Knowles; set decoration, Beth A. Rubino; costume design, Poppy Cannon-Reese; sound (Dolby), Stephan Von Hase Mihalik; visual effects design and supervision/second unit visual effects director, Christopher F. Woods; aerial coordinator, Kevin Donnelly; aerial stunt coordinator, Jerry Meyers; aerial camera, Frank Holgate, Donald M. Morgan; land-based second unit director, Buddy Joe Hooker; land-based second unit camera, Bill Roe; additional camera, Charles Minsky; assistant director, George Parra; casting, Terry Liebling. Reviewed at the Cinerama Dome, L.A., Sept. 19, 1994. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 100 min.

With

Ditch Brodie - Charlie Sheen Chris Morrow - Nastassja Kinski Ben Pinkwater - James Gandolfini Kerr - Christopher McDonald Lex - Gary Bullock Sam - Hans R. Howes Noble - Melvin Van Peebles Karen - Cathryn de Prume Dominic - Richard Sarafian Jr.
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