' ' Cinema Romantico: Plane

Monday, May 22, 2023


“Plane” is a title ripe for mockery. I mocked it myself! And yet, in finally watching Jean-François Richet’s January action/thriller, which would have been an equally appropriate as a May or June release, frankly, it becomes apparent the monosyllabically terse moniker is an apt embodiment of the movie’s own refreshingly streamlined nature, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, if not also the straight-forward gruffness that leading man Gerard Butler has turned into, for want of another blunt term, his thing. And if it can sometimes feel as if “Plane” is an ironic name too, given just how much of the movie takes place outside its MD-80, screenwriters Charles Cumming and J.P. Davis deliciously devise something like an elaborate narrative obstacle course to take us away from the plane and then back to it, culminating in a resolution that made me laugh out loud for the second time and quoting Peter Venkman to no one since no one was with me, “I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it!”

The first time I laughed out loud during “Plane” was right at the start as we meet former RAF pilot and Commercial Air Captain Brodie Torrance (Butler) as he hustles into the Singapore airport, late for his flight (of course he is!) to Honolulu by way of Tokyo and FaceTiming his daughter who he is slated to see in Hawaii, durable narrative economy that let me know right away that I was in good hands. Richet, Cumming, and Davis create the best kind of plot-forward movie, deploying a textbook “Now What?” strategy of reversals that relentlessly change and reup the stakes – “Now what?” Brodie is late for his flight, and then is told a small passenger list will include a prisoner in handcuffs, Louis Gaspare (Michael Colter), being extradited to Canada, and then is told he will have to fly directly into a storm to conserve expensive fuel, and then has a lightning strike fry the plane and communication system, and then must emergency land on Jolo Island in the Sulu Sea of the Southwest Philippines, and then must find a way to radio for help, and then discovers the island is controlled, in a manner of speaking, by rebels who eventually take the passengers hostage, forcing Brodie to play Schwarzenegger, all while a crisis team back in the U.S. overseen by Scarsdale (Tony Goldwyn) enlists private military contractors in rescue attempt. Whew. All that and a bag of money too.

By tying a brick firmly to his accelerator, Richet ensures “Plane” raucously elides all its necessarily baked-in inanity while simultaneously saving its best and biggest joke, in a manner of speaking, for last, a movie that understands how to crescendo by transforming its biggest set piece into a kind of action-oriented punchline. Jolo, meanwhile, is best not viewed through any real cultural lens and instead as a kind of make-believe island teeming with stock movie villains. That is not, however, to mean that “Plane” is tongue-in-cheek. Though he allows himself room to have fun, Richet still mines a certain amount of Hollywood verisimilitude from his filmmaking, both in the initial crash-landing sequence and one on the island in which Brodie is surprised by a bad guy in a warehouse while radioing for help and is forced to kill him. The intensity of the struggle is rendered palpable in the close-ups and eschewing of a musical score, and while one might quibble with Brodie’s abilities with regard to such a task, the agony in the character is made real, not least because of Butler.

The airplane passengers are admittedly afterthoughts, mostly just existing to be in harm’s way, though Colter’s inherent gentle giant air plays right for the role of a Prisoner Who Turns Out to Not Really Be a Bad Guy, and he and Butler have solid chemistry in their scenes together. (As the crisis manager, Goldwyn brings a dry severity that might have made for a good kind of Sgt. Al Powell-ish pairing, though because of the lack of communication, this can never take flight.) But ultimately, “Plane” belongs to its Pilot. There’s not a ton to this character, this Brodie Torrance, a scar from his past that has left him helming NYE flights, the daughter he doesn’t see anymore, and a dead wife. The latter is just sort of summarized in a one close-up in the cockpit after Brodie tells his co-captain, where Butler lets a polite smile give way to an undertow of pain, a nifty demonstration of conveying a whole backstory in one look. Not long after, he stands in the galley with his flight crew, drinking a cup of coffee, telling them all to have a good flight, looking for all the world like a coach before the big game. I felt inspired, like I wanted to get up off the couch and go quick and buy a one-way ticket to Honolulu myself. Put me in coach!

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