Harrison Ford never saw battle — he was a conscientious objector. And we all know Bill Clinton's service record. But in the eruptively exciting Air Force One — the real deal in an action-thriller deluxe — the fictional president played by Ford puts teeth in the title of commander in chief. Give this president a bullwhip and a fedora and he's Indiana Jones. Ford is in peak fighting form as James Marshall, a former soldier with combat stripes and a short fuse when it comes to terrorists. Push him too far and he'll kick your ass. Gary Oldman, oozing menace as a Russian dissident named Korshunov, really pushes. Posing as a Moscow journalist to gain access to "Air Force One," Korshunov and his team hijack the presidential jet in midflight. The ultimatum? Release their leader, General Radek, from prison or they'll start killing the hostages on board, including Cabinet members, first lady Grace Marshall (Wendy Crewson) and first daughter Alice (Liesel Matthews), age 12.
Whew, does that piss off the prez! Instead of bailing out in the 747's escape pod, he hides in the bowels of the jet to play hero. Korshunoy mistakenly thinks that the president has made a cowardly exit "like a woman." This Russki is a serious sexist, which makes it hard when he negotiates by radio with the new person in charge. She is Vice President Bennett, played by Glenn Close, who excels in the role with her sharp intuition and quiet strength. Her male colleagues in Washington are only slightly less overt in their misogyny. Nice touch. Korshunov warns the Veep not to let the guys see that she is "sweating through that silk blouse."
That wickedly hissable line is typical of Andrew Marlowe's canny, original screenplay. Of course, it's not really that new. The recycled elements are as current as "Die Hard" and as classic as the 1930s cliffhangers that inspired Ford's "Raiders of the Lost Ark." No matter. Director Wolfgang Petersen puts such a fresh spin on the familiar that it all works like gangbusters. Petersen knows his way around claustrophobic tension ("Das Boot") and presidents in peril ("In the Line of Fire"). The director juggles the events in the air and on the ground with a meticulous attention to detail. You don't stay glued to the screen because a hack director has strung together a few workable formulas. "Air Force One" is gripping, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat entertainment because you are in the hands of a master craftsman.
In defiance of action rules, "Air Force One" opens with a speech as President Marshall addresses an assembly in Russia. To the surprise and annoyance of his aides, he uses his own strong language to declare war on terrorists ("Your day is over"). Security at the airport is tight, but on the plane, the president is relaxed. He watches a tape of a football game he missed and pleads that no one tell him who won. He helps Alice with homework, shares a hug with Grace. No Bill and Hillary squabbling or hints of marital discord. The family stuff is low-key and surprisingly genuine.
Boring? Not a bit. Petersen is setting a trap. The president's arrogance in speaking out will cost him. Soon he'll have to eat his words and play ball with the bad guys to save his family. While establishing the emotional bond of the Marshalls, Petersen does something else equally crucial: He lays out the geography of the plane. We see the space where the president works, where he meets with his advisers, where he loosens up with his family. We see how security operates, where the Secret Service agents are located and how the chief agent (ably played by Xander Berkeley) monitors the activities on the jet and limits access to the president. Superbly shot by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus ("GoodFellas"), these loaded scenes develop character with elegant precision and set up a solid framework for the fireworks to follow.
What's the big whoop about that? Look at the spatial incoherence in most films today. The action is so in-your-face that you barely know what's happening and to whom. Petersen puts you in the picture. As the president tiptoes around, you know what's behind each door he passes. This grabber of a movie reminds us what a delicious kick it is to be scared senseless by experts.
Petersen escalates the suspense with diabolical skill but never at the expense of humor. Besides the traces of Indiana Jones and Jack Ryan in Ford's performance, you'll also detect a bit of the raffish Han Solo. Snooping around the baggage compartment, the president uncovers a cell phone. Reaching the White House, he's hassled by a suspicious operator ("Sure you're the president"), only to watch the phone's battery die when she finally gives him access. Ford's slow burn is priceless. What a relief to see this underrated actor (Witness, Working Girl, Presumed Innocent, The Fugitive) back in gear after Sabrina and The Devil's Own, two rare flops in the Ford-canon. His wit is dry — acerbic but never campy.
Heftier issues are also subtly worked into the mix. "My father is a great man," Alice pipes up to Korshunov, who is ready to kill her if he must. The Russian admires the girl's courage but begs to differ, noting that murder is murder, even if the one giving orders wears a suit and uses a phone instead of a weapon. Oldman's deft underplaying (no Fifth Element hamming here) adds unexpected humanity to a role that could have slipped into caricature.
Still, it's the breathtaking set pieces that keep pulses pounding, notably a covert parachute escape organized by the president and a midair rescue mission that literally leaves the cast dangling and defines the word cliffhanger. The sight of Ford's president using his fists, his feet and even a handy stool to clobber his enemies is impressive, considering that he does it all in a suit.
Don't lump the superior escapism of Air Force One with the tediously frenzied sequels to Jurassic Park, Batman and Speed, or with any of the other summer bottom feeders. The worst offender is the poisonously cynical "Con Air," a Jerry Bruck-heimer production that views us as jolt junkies eager to pay for any tainted action meat as long as it's bloody, accompanied by nonstop noise, and spiced with sadism and twisted sex. Air Force One doesn't insult the audience. It is crafted by a film-maker who takes pride in the thrills and sly fun he packs into every frame. Welcome to something rare in a summer of crass commercialism: a class act.