Now Emmy-season shoo-ins, HBO original films were once largely indiscernible from skinflint, straight-to-video action schlock. Boasting titles like Fever, Fortress, Blind Side, Blue Ice or White Mile, these works were distinguishable from “lesser” fare only because they were fronted by comparatively recognizable performers like Michael Caine, Pierce Brosnan, Ron Silver or Alan Alda, and HBO squeezed their primo Saturday-night premieres between marquee movies.
Down to its amusingly spartan title, Plane plays like the story of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s miracle landing inverted into invented fiction straight out of such early-1990s HBO fare. Neither as cacophonous as Cannon films of that era nor as corny as, say, a TNT take on the same tale, Plane is also the rare film starring Gerard Butler to be taken at relatively serious face value.
Butler isn’t gnawing at jailhouse bars a la Copshop, housing doughnuts as in Den of Thieves or facing a fantastical end-times scenario that’s goofy and effervescent or glum and enervating. Captain Brodie Torrance (whom Butler endows with his natural Scottish accent) is instead a regular-guy pilot for Trailblazer Airlines, a job that has him going everywhere and nowhere. Torrance is stuck running crap routes from Singapore to Tokyo on New Year’s Eve, which hamper his plan to enjoy homemade haggis on a Hawaiian holiday with his estranged daughter. They’ve never confronted their respective grief over a wife and mother’s passing, but the time is now. Ope, there’s a spectacular confluence of Trailblazer’s corporate myopia, nasty weather and the last-second extradition of a homicide fugitive named Gaspare (Mike Colter) on Torrance’s flight. And it’s not long before Torrance finds himself fighting for his life, and his passengers’ lives, on Filipino land the nation’s law has left to violent separatists and criminals.
If anything, Plane is Gerard Butler’s Captain Phillips, and not in a flippant manner of comparative chintz. To a less financially successful and artistically fruitful degree, Butler works like Keanu Reeves — keenly aware of his guardrails and the vehicles with which to trade paint with them. Scaled to Butler’s capabilities, Plane works on its own wavelength as the story of a resolute company man thrown into, and existentially confused by, a scenario of adrenalized geopolitical violence. Director Jean-François Richet depicts Torrance’s first confrontation with a villain in one long take, which lends both fluidity to the action and force to the faces Butler makes as a man wrestling with the need to choke the life out of a bad guy when death has strangled so much of his own being. (Indeed, the only laugh-aloud moment arrives with viral-video details behind Torrance’s demotion, and even those yuks aren’t intentional.) Does Butler still deliver his signature line of “Fuck you” to a bad guy? Of course. But the actor also successfully endeavors to put emotion behind Torrance’s sweat-stung, workaday eyes.
Working off a script by Charles Cumming and J.P. Davis, Richet resurrects philosophical tension from his 2005 redux of Assault on Precinct 13 by contrasting Torrance’s timidity with Gaspare’s temerity. (It’s easier for Richet to be more effective here when he’s essentially remaking lesser Redbox fare rather than one of the 1970s’ finest exploitation films.)
Murder is the case given to Gaspare, but his crimes are not so simply squared away with the man he’s become in the ensuing 15 years. Torrance’s hunch of heroism, and a pragmatic realization that he won’t be good at killing anybody, is why he tasks Gaspare to trek with him through the jungle to seek help. And when missionary-murdering marauders take the passengers hostage, Plane embraces the right amount of context for Colter and Butler to play as men compelled to kill either through self-defense or self-identity. It does just enough with the double standards on violence we find permissible for their double act to hold our attention even as you wish there were more to do for Colter, whose gruffly witty and charismatic presence has been sorely underutilized since his Luke Cage series was canceled.
In general, Richet knows how to regulate Plane‘s temperature — neither running too hot to further strain the credulity of stacked consequences nor too cold that it doesn’t get your blood going like an action film should. It helps to hire a pro like Tony Goldwyn to play a crisis-management consultant who takes charge where Trailblazer’s corporate weenies will not. So does understanding the right time to start splatter-cleaving bad guys with beefy .50-caliber firearms before a finale that, true to its forerunners, plays like a pay-cable production of Argo with effects that are certainly passable when graded on a Butlerian curve. A bit where Torrance’s phone call to Trailblazer’s hotline is confused for a prank plays like a sort of dunderheaded Die Hard moment. The title makes it seem like Plane is jerking you around by ordering a pizza, and a cheap one at that. But to the degree that pizza is still pizza, Plane is still movie.