Tense and exciting when it finally gets airborne, Chinese disaster movie “The Captain” is an effective tribute to those who saved the day when the cockpit window of a Sichuan Airlines flight shattered over the Tibetan Plateau on May 14, 2018. Though riddled with wobbly dialogue and wafer-thin characters, this patriotic thriller is easy enough to enjoy if you don’t look too closely. Capably assembled by Hong Kong director Andrew Lau (the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy), “The Captain” has gone stratospheric at the Chinese box office, grossing $373 million in its first 18 days. Business has been brisk in foreign territories including Australia and the U.K., all of which bodes well for the film’s North American release on Oct. 18.
One of three features released in time for China’s Oct. 1 National Day celebrations and week-long public holiday, “The Captain” is running a close second to flag-waving omnibus “My Country, My People,” and way ahead of the Mt. Everest-themed adventure “The Climbers.” Though nowhere near as politically patriotic as those films, “The Captain” still finds plenty of time to laud Chinese ingenuity, technology and the highly disciplined efficiency of its aviation and emergency services personnel.
This is evident right from the start, with a lengthy setup showing how every safety precaution, security measure and technical check imaginable was taken before the plane departed Chongqing for Lhasa. Wedged into this footage, which is clearly intended to absolve anyone of blame and maintain confidence in Sichuan Airlines, is a quick-fire introduction of Capt. Liu Changjian, played with steely-eyed determination by Zhang Hanyu (“Operation Mekong”). A dedicated family man and former military pilot who insists on meticulous preparation and faultless work by his colleagues, Liu has promised his young daughter he’ll be home in time for her birthday party later that day.
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The screenplay by Yu Yonggyan (“The Bravest”) follows standard disaster movie procedure with thumbnail sketches of conscientious second officer Liang Dong (Du Jiang), unflappable inflight service manager Bi Nan (Yuan Quan, easily stealing the acting honors), brash young co-pilot Xu Yicheng (Ou Hao) and Huang Jia (Zhang Tianai), a pretty flight attendant Liang has his eye on.
Even skimpier are profiles of mostly nameless passengers, including a young mute woman, an oafish business class passenger and a Tibetan mother and son. Adding a dash of triumphalism is a Chinese army veteran making an emotional return to the occupied territory of Tibet to honor his fallen comrades.
“The Captain” overcomes its clunky start and zooms into high-energy action when the aircraft reaches 32,000 feet and the cockpit window shatters, pulling co-pilot Xu halfway out of the cabin. In very well staged scenes, the plane drops 8,000 feet before Liu’s quick thinking and masterful flying skill regains control and save Xu’s life. That’s just the beginning of a gripping depiction of how Liu navigates through severe storms at dangerously low altitude while the plane’s oxygen supply runs low and passengers begin to pass out and panic.
Lau and ace action movie editor Azrael Chung (“Shock Wave”) maintain full throttle with fast cutting to various military command stations, airport control towers and civil aviation facilities staffed by extremely competent executives and highly skilled team members. Obligatory scenes of Liu’s wife (Shu Chen) and other loved ones waiting anxiously on the ground are kept to the bare minimum required for this type of tale, with no ill effects.
Emphasizing the patriotic message that collective effort is much more important than individual heroics, Liu is very reluctant to accept any great praise for his miraculous deeds, and wants only to apologize to passengers before making it to his daughter’s birthday party on time, of course.
Aside from a few unconvincing CGI shots the film looks and sounds great. Even when dialogue begins to sound like clichés used for comic effect in high-altitude disaster movie sendup “Airplane!” Still, “The Captain” has the propulsion to ride over the rough spots and come in for a safe and mostly satisfying landing.