Courtesy Photo
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

Starring Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close, Dean Stockwell, William H. Macy & Jurgen Prochnow.

"Air Force One"

Opened: July 25, 1997 | Rated: R

Let me tell you something very revealing about "Air Force One": It was written with Kevin Costner in mind to play the president of the United States.

I don't know about you, but I just can't picture that without laughing. A rookie screenwriter named Andrew W. Marlowe presumably wrote this entire movie with a straight face.

Kevin Costner did not get the part. Harrison Ford did. And while that comes as something of a relief, the fact remains that "Air Force One" was penned by someone with questionable merit as a serious story-teller.

The result is exactly what you might expect -- another generic high-altitude hijack movie, a la "Turbulence" and "Executive Decision," in which the president is the hero onboard the plane instead of the guy ordering it blown up.

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen ("Das Boot," "In the Line of Fire"), the film's cast includes Ford, Glenn Close and Gary Oldman. Four people I expect much more from than retread hostage fare.

Opening with the kind of speech only a fictional president could give -- an impassioned opus about throwing political caution to the wind and doing the right thing -- Ford spends a few scenes establishing himself as a sensitive man and a good father.

He kisses his wife, watches a little football and explains to his 12-year-old daughter that he didn't take her on his tour of a refugee camp for her own good.

Meanwhile, Oldman, playing a perturbed Russian ultra-nationalist, forges himself a press pass and sneaks on board Air Force One accompanied by five lackeys. With the help of a turncoat Secret Service agent, whose motives are never explained, they break into the jet's weapons cabinet, shoot a bunch of people and take over the plane.

To fool the terrorists Ford launches his presidential escape capsule empty then starts sneaking around the 747 like Bruce Willis. He finds a cell phone in the luggage and calls the White House, where he is put on speaker phone so the cabinet can listen in for most of the movie, serving as a surrogate audience reminding us when to wring our hands and when to cheer.

Oldman's plan is to ransom the president and his family for an imprisoned, coup-minded general in Kazakhastan, killing one hostage every 30 minutes until his leader is free. Director Petersen missteps here, allowing the terrorist's hostage murders to be unnecessarily brutal. It takes any fun out of the action by making Oldman so evil that his eventual comeuppance will never be enough to satisfy the audience.

The middle hour of the movie consists of the usual action scenarios -- Ford jumps a few guys and takes their guns, auto-pilot issues arise, the plane gets low on fuel and at the White House, vice president Glenn Close argues with Pentagon hawks about their rescue options.

"Air Force One" hasn't a moment of genuine tension because every development is entirely expected, as if Marlowe wrote the screenplay the day after reading "Action Movie Writing for Dummies."

The last 30 minutes hold some rewarding thrills when rebel Russian MiG fighters start taking pot shots at the plane and the military attempts an exciting air-to-air rescue. But it's too little, too late. This glimmer of originality was needed much earlier in the film.

Most disappointing were the lackluster efforts by the all-star cast.

Ford could have phoned in his part, doing little to distinguish his President here from his upstanding CIA operative Jack Ryan in "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger."

Close took a purely reactionary role that could have been played by anyone. She spends the entire movie listening intently to the speaker phone and saying things like "If he's up there, he's the best chance we have."

Oldman offers a little more by trying to provide his antagonist some backstory and motivation, but this maniacal hijacker doesn't measure up to Alan Rickman in "Die Hard" or even Tommy Lee Jones in "Under Siege," which is the least we should expect from a movie with this kind of star power.

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