Seeing the president of the United States as a kick-butt action hero pretty much sums up the appeal of “Air Force One,” a preposterously pulpy but quite entertaining suspense meller. Spiked by some spectacularly staged and genuinely tense action sequences, Wolfgang Petersen’s latest politically tinged thriller will soar on Harrison Ford’s name to high-flying domestic and international grosses, scoring another summer hit for Sony.
Despite its cartoon-like delineation of the forces of good and evil, its dependence upon special visual effects for much of its excitement and the piling on of an excess of climaxes, this tale of the hijacking of the world’s most security-laden airplane nonetheless comes off as far more “realistic” than the majority of this summer’s big-budget attractions simply because everything in it is meant to be physically possible in the real world, rather than being rooted in the credibility of the effects themselves. Viewers looking for old-fashioned movie thrills as a change of pace from the glut of alien and digital-oriented features might paradoxically enjoy the feeling of being back on terra firma with this airborne adventure.
The search for plausible movie villains in the post-Cold War era this time leads to Kazakhstan, where a prologue shows a Yank-Russian commando raid snaring fascistic leader Gen. Radek (“Das Boot” star Jurgen Prochnow in a silent cameo). At a subsequent celebratory dinner in Moscow, U.S. President James Marshall (Ford) soberly announces that, in the future, his country will never give in to, or negotiate with, terrorists, putting such evildoers on notice that their days are numbered.
But no sooner has Air Force One taken off for the trip home than it is taken over by a bunch of Radek faithful led by the fanatical Ivan (Gary Oldman), who blames the U.S. for the destruction of his country and is determined that Mother Russia be restored to its former glory. Having gotten on board posing as journalists with the unexplained help of a member of the president’s security staff, the gang is able to commandeer the plane’s artillery and mow down quite a few passengers before securing control of the plane.
Ivan’s plan to take the president hostage is thwarted when the latter seems to escape in a space capsule-like emergency pod from the bottom of the fuselage (one of the film’s inventions, apparently). The pilot’s urgent attempt to land the 747 at a German airbase — only to be shot and replaced at the controls by one of the terrorists, who desperately tries to lift the giant plane off the tarmac after it has set down — makes for a terrific action set piece that can genuinely be called nerve-wracking.
Once cruising altitude has been regained, contact is made with Washington, and Ivan announces his intentions: He will execute a hostage from among the many government staff on board every half-hour until Radek is released from prison. This results in a good deal of intercutting between the plane and the capital, where Vice President Bennett (Glenn Close), who has no idea where the president might be, must try to make monumental decisions while being pulled in different directions by the Haig-like secretary of defense (Dean Stockwell), the joint chiefs and others among the power elite.
President Marshall, however — Vietnam vet and Medal of Honor winner that he is — has not jumped ship, but has become a guerrilla fighter on board his own aircraft. Amusingly playing peekaboo with the thugs in the hold, the president succeeds in drawing one of them into a fight and, presto, emerges from it as a full-fledged action hero after he kills him. For quite a while, Marshall manages to keep his presence down below a secret from his adversaries, even as he manages to establish phone contact with the outside to order F-15s to fire missiles at his own plane, to kill another terrorist and to dump a great deal of fuel in an effort to effect a quick resolution.
Second boffo action sequence involves dozens of passengers parachuting out of the plane’s belly during an attempted refueling, which results in a stunning fiery explosion and the sight of the U.S. president barely hanging on to the jet as it flies at 15,000 feet. At long last, however, Ivan gets his intended prey in his grips; despite Marshall’s tough words, he must eventually accede to his captor’s demand to release Radek, setting in motion an international incident that parallels the final battle between the two enemies in the air.
Unfortunately, “Air Force One” shares with many of its other summer-release companions the sin of excess endings; after delivering its natural climax, the filmmakers insist upon adding a few more, including a final one involving the renegade Secret Service agent that is downright silly.
The artificiality of the material and the hokiness of many individual moments notwithstanding, Petersen, the master of cramped quarters in “Das Boot,” puts it all across with relative conviction and great vigor. All the key scenes, whether they involve massive logistics or one-on-one personal confrontations, are shot and edited to pulse-quickening effect, which casts into shadow the numerous possible objections one can easily raise to the film: that it is a wildly jingoistic American imperialist exercise, a more covert “Rambo”-like fantasy projection for Vietnam-era men, or that first-time screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe’s admittedly clever scenario could have sorely used some leavening wit and humor.
The film succeeds even despite what can only be called a monotone, physically unexciting performance from Ford. His relatively withdrawn, reluctant personality adds little dimension to the drama, and yet he somehow fills the bill both as a president and a man who can take difficult matters into his own hands and bend them to his will. There is definite star power at work here, along with a talent for making less seem like a lot more.
Oldman, in his second malevolent lead of the summer, after “The Fifth Element,” registers strongly as a veteran of the Afghan campaign pushed to desperate lengths to newly ennoble his country. Close spends most of her time speaking urgently over the phone, and other members of the large supporting cast deliver well-delineated cut-outs.
Film’s many outstanding technical achievements do not overshadow the dramatic tension of the situations themselves. Huge visual effects team supervised by Richard Edlund deserves major kudos for the bounty of startling in-flight incidents. Production designer William Sandell oversaw the re-creation of Air Force One, the interior of which provides much ongoing fascination, and such incidental sets as the crowded Moscow banquet room and Radek’s circles-of-hell prison are marvelous. Michael Ballhaus’ highly mobile lensing and Richard Francis-Bruce’s adroit editing contribute strongly to keeping the film aloft. Jerry Goldsmith’s score seems overstrenuous at times in trying to stir extra excitement.