‘Plane’ Is the Frontier Airlines of Action Movies
Good evening, this is your captain speaking. Welcome to Trailblazer Flight 119, departing Singapore for Tokyo. If you’re wondering why tonight’s flight is not particularly full, it’s because we’re traveling on New Year’s Eve. (And if you’re wondering why a not-particularly-full theater is programming what feels like a relic from the golden age of Grade-Z exploitation flicks, it’s because it is January. Happy New Year!) You will still notice, however, that what few fellow travelers there are onboard will adhere to the standard caricatures of airline passengers you’d see in a movie: the fussy, entitled, high-maintenance dude; the semi-drunk-before-we’ve-even-taken-off d-bag; the two Gen Z-ers obsessed with Instagram selfies; the slightly clueless, middle-class touristy couple. Oh, and that brooding, glowering bald guy back there in handcuffs, traveling with a handler? He’s just a fugitive from a long-ago murder case who’s being extradited back to the States. No big whoop.
Our flight time is a not particularly lean, not exactly mean 107 minutes, though there are moments when it may feel a lot longer. We’re told that we may be flying through an electrical storm that seems hairy but harmless, at least until the plot needs it to send a flight attendant careening up to the ceiling before crippling the plane. Should we need to make an emergency landing, your seats can be used as a flotation device and your predictions that you will end up fighting for your lives against heavily-accented terrorists — who run the gamut from mildly racist to Dear God It’s 2023 Does Anyone Still Think This Sort of Character Isn’t Seriously Cringeworthy? — are likely to come true. Even with an action star like Gerard Butler in the cockpit, one whose track record speaks for itself re: making otherwise unwatchable he-man heroics a bit more bearable, trust us: It most assuredly will be bumpy.
The ghosts of Cannon Films past hover all around Plane, the sort of politically-confused mediocrity that isn’t campy enough to be industry-dump-month fun and isn’t horrific enough to leave a stink lasting longer than its running time. Put it to you this way: You genuinely wonder whether the film’s title was misspelled, or if its creators accidentally used the wrong homonym. There’s also a truth-in-advertising issue at stake, since such a generic name suggests a throwback to those 1990s thrillers that gave you thrills, spills and chills at 35,000 feet — your Turbulence, your Passenger 57, your Air Force One. It’s not spoiling much to say that less than a half-hour in, after suffering a lightning strike that takes the flight’s entire electronic system out, Butler’s Brodie Torrance has to say the words you never want hear a pilot utter: “Prepare to ditch.”
Luckily, Brodie finds a nice, leafy spot in the Philippines’ Jolo island cluster to land his bird and, with the exception of two casualties, gets everyone safely back on to terra firma. Unluckily, the place is populated by a separatist group of killers, scallywags, ne’er-do-wells, rapscallions and Central Casting day players; they’re so notorious that neither the Philippine government nor the army will fuck with them. Back in the United States, an airline “fixer” (Tony Goldwyn) has ordered some off-the-books military types to rescue them, but their boots can’t be on the ground for 24 hours. The captain and Louis Gaspare (Luke Cage/Evil’s Mike Colter), that aforementioned hardened, handcuffed felon who once ran away and joined the French Foreign Legion — not a typo! — both head out to find a working radio or phone on the island. Sure enough, they quickly run into these ISIS-lite baddies.
And that’s when Plane turns into a straight-outta-the-Reagan-era joint, complete with mercenaries, rocket-launchers, sweaty men in sweaty life-or-death situations, plenty of disposable exotic thugs, P.O.W.-style hostages, slit throats, sledgehammer head wounds and gunshots that don’t cause bullet holes so much as full-body splatterfests. Were someone to start idly playing with a Rubik’s Cube, it would not seem the least bit out of place. It somehow feels super-jingoistic without being tied to one nation or set of ideals. By the time they eventually make it back to the 747 for one last attempt at getting the fuck off this conspicuously retro hellscape, you may find yourself going, “Oh, right, it was called Plane for a reason.”
It’s ridiculous, unless you consider this a referendum on Gerard Butler’s appeal as a movie star, in which case this flashback to gorier, more ballistic-heavy times is merely frustrating. A beefy, roughhewn Scottish scrapper of an actor, blessed with Cro-Magnon handsomeness and a physique that suggests hard labor over gym hours, Butler has fashioned a persona that places him somewhere between Jason Statham and Striking Distance-era Bruce Willis in the Action Hero Hall of Fame. The man can handle himself in a screen fight, as he proves in the movie’s highlight: a one-shot tussle with a bad guy that turns into something like an unsanctioned MMA bout.
Butler also deserves better than this — he’s earned that, at the very least. Say what you will about Olympus Has Fallen and its sequels, or the delirious disaster movie Greenland, which shares a producer with Plane — they understood how to put Butler’s blunt-instrument presence to great B-movie use. This film doesn’t seem to know what to do with him, so director Jean-François Richet just puts him through the bare minimum of furrowed-brow paces, while the script saddles him with an eyeroll-inducing backstory (a daughter, a demotion, a desperate need for redemption) and clenched-jaw lines like, “We need all the tires we can get!” Even by cinema du January standards, this weak-tea survivalist thriller feels clunky. Plane is, in essence, the Frontier Airlines of action films: It’s cut-rate to a fault, makes you endure a lot of unpleasantness on the way to its final destination, and still leaves you with the distinct feeling that you didn’t even get what you paid for.