“Turbulence” is one bumpy ride. This variation on the killer-is-loose scenario is sky-high, as a convicted killer being transported from New York to Los Angeles gets control of a 747. Though skillfully executed on a technical level, the picture falls flat dramatically. Rife with cliches, it’s often unintentionally funny when it’s not straining the bounds of credulity. Expect no more than OK genre returns theatrically and decent ancillary action — with the exception of airline sales.
Ryan Weaver (Ray Liotta) is the so-called Lonely-hearts Killer — a man who preys on emotionally vulnerable women. In the opening moments of the film he’s recaptured, after having escaped from prison, moments before he’s presumably going to strike again. But suspicion is strong that his tracker, Lt. Aldo Hines (Hector Elizondo), has planted evidence to incriminate him.
For a heartbeat, the story suggests that Weaver’s innocent. But writer Jonathan Brett can come up with no better reason for the frame-up than that the cop wants some media attention from a big case before he retires. Besides, the wrong-man twist works only when you cast a star with a warm screen persona.
From the get-go, “Turbulence” rocks and rolls for narrative expediency rather than out of a sense of logic. For the reediest of rationales, Hines flies on ahead rather than accompany his charge back to L.A. And why on Earth the supposedly shrewd Weaver — who made a daring escape from jail after his trial — thought he could resume business in Manhattan simply has to be taken on faith.
On the day before Christmas, Weaver and another prisoner, Stubbs (Brendan Gleeson), are shackled and put aboard a quiet commercial flight with just 11 other passengers. Stubbs manages to turn the tables on a federal agent in the lavatory, and pandemonium erupts. In the ensuing mayhem, Stubbs, the pilot and all four feds are killed. As the dust settles, the plane just happens to be heading into the eye of a major storm.
Weaver’s actions to bring tranquility to the situation are mistakenly viewed as heroic by brainless (and emotionally vulnerable) flight attendant Teri Halloran (Lauren Holly).
The gist of the movie finally boils down to Teri’s efforts to bring the plane safely to rest while Weaver works just as diligently to force a crash landing — conveniently abetted when the co-pilot is fatally knocked into the instrument panel by the buffeting winds. It’s also no help that Teri is exactly the type of woman our maniac likes to prey upon.
In the manner of so many earlier horror yarns, the film situates victim and stalker in close proximity with no seeming way out. The cat-and-mouse game pretty much follows the rules of the genre, but with one ridiculous addition: The flight attendant must land the flying behemoth, a la Karen Black in “Airport 1975,” with the patient instructional assistance of a British flier (Ben Cross) on the headset.
Director Robert Butler appears less concerned with plot than with simulating the tilt and vibrations of his air-war scenario. Though most of the effects are no more than cheap gimmickry, he creates a few moments of genuine terror by turning the jet’s cabin into a nightmare jungle of flickering lights and dangling oxygen cords in which the hunt takes place.
Both Liotta and Holly fight mightily, and fruitlessly, to flesh out stereotypical roles. Liotta gets scant opportunity to convey the charm that would make his character truly blood-chilling, while Holly needs more material to indicate Teri’s tenacity and smarts, and fewer instances where she’s asked to impersonate a rabbit caught in the headlights.
There’s no need for a flight schedule to determine “Turbulence’s” final destination. Still, one has to wonder how this vehicle got off the ground with both FAA and MPAA approval.