' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Drop Zone (1994)

Friday, August 03, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Drop Zone (1994)

Kathryn Bigelow’s hallowed “Point Break” (1991) had skydiving but only in bits and pieces. John Badham’s “Drop Zone” (1994), on the other hand, while not strictly all skydiving still comes close to it. The movie opens with a prison break from 38,000 feet and concludes with something akin to a skydive off the DEA building where the chute opening doubles as the villain’s comeuppance. And in-between skydiving repeatedly takes center stage, so much so that at one point all the main characters gather for a daytime skydive over Washington D.C., endure the obligatory concluding second act crisis, brush it off, and then go right back up in the air for a nighttime skydive over Washington D.C. That is action movie efficiency.

The 747 jailbreak is schemed by Ty Moncrief, played by Gary Busey, who finds his seat aboard the plane while wearing thick glasses, which Busey accentuates by theatrically squinting, as if trying to throw us off the scent of his true daredevil nature. Indeed, not long after, he and his crack team of skydivers abscond with an uber-skilled hacker (Michael Jeter) who is being transported from Miami to Atlanta by a pair of federal marshals, Pete Nessip (Wesley Snipes) and Terry Nessip (Malcolm-Jamal Warner). As the surnames indicate, they are brothers, and if it seems odd that two brothers would wind up on such an assignment together, well, who I am to question the federal marshal service? Perhaps this is standard operating procedure, a means to ensure that if one brother gets killed mid-flight, as Terry does when Moncrief’s plan goes off, then the other brother, Pete, can seek federally mandated vengeance. Oddly, however, after initially getting bent out of shape, any sense of blood honor mostly falls by the wayside as the movie progresses.

This is just one of many narrative oversights, not that I’m really complaining. In his original review for “Drop Zone” the late great Roger Ebert applauded all the skydiving stunts but bemoaned the plot. And it’s not that the plot isn’t absurd, because it is, or that it doesn’t necessarily hang together, because I’m sure it doesn’t, but that I nevertheless appreciated the story on its own cornball, connect-the-stunts terms. Moncrief’s ultimate plan is to hack into the DEA to uncover the identity of every single undercover agent in the world and then sell their identities for the requisite millions. That involves a climactic plot to skydive into the DEA Building in Washington D.C. during the 4th of July fireworks show in the nation’s capital. As is explained, “Washington DC as a drop zone. Any other day it’s restricted airspace.” (As Peter Venkman once observed, I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it!) I mean, perhaps this is implausible, but narrative implausibility is only egregious if it is not amusing. And this is absolutely amusing. When that line was spoken, I laughed out loud. And if you’re not laughing out loud during a movie like “Drop Zone”, then the movie ain’t doing it right.

Wesley Snipes, however, is not laughing. That’s good and bad. I watched “Drop Zone” specifically because I yearned for the days when Mr. Snipes was a top-billed action star. And in that role, he is solid. He goes about his business with a kind of effective ass-kicking pragmatism, like a scene where he disposes of three baddies inside a men’s room. It’s not joyless, even if you wish he might espouse more quasi-witty one-liners, because the fun stems from his inexorable productiveness. But when the movie wants his character to leave that all-business persona behind and fall in love with the thrill of jumping out of planes when he falls in with some skydivers to try and ferret out Moncrief, Snipes fails to make the turn.

That he fails winds up, sadly, being right in line with “Drop Zone” itself. The narrative absurdity never trickles down to the movie’s presentation of skydiving subculture, which Pete ends up a part of after consulting Jessie Crossman (Yancy Butler), who might just know someone who might just know Moncrief, and her band of skydivers. Though Butler’s character suggests Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi in “Point Break”, she is never allowed to graduate to a similar sort of Zenmaster status, while promising characters like Swoop (Kyle Secor), suggesting a beach bum in the clouds, are not given enough to do. No, they are just along for the movie’s ride, which maybe isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe the adrenaline rush of skydiving can only be properly expressed through stunts, which is why “Drop Zone”, bless its heart, stops at nothing, no matter how far it has to stretch, to get us back in the air.

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