Air Force One (1997)

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If Harrison Ford tells you to get off his plane you better jump out head first. After his success as an action hero in both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones Trilogies it was just a matter of time before it happened. It’s Harrison Ford’s turn to get the Die Hard treatment. If that punk kid Keanu Reeves can get Speed then you can bet that a veteran of the genre is going to get his chance to take on some terrorists.

After making a somewhat controversial speech at Moscow, President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) begins the journey home aboard Air Force One. But he’s in for a surprise when Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman) leads a group of terrorists in capturing the plane. While the terrorists believe the president slipped away, a stranger below deck begins sabotaging their plans. What they don’t know is that this saboteur is the president himself.

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Within the first thirty minutes of this film it seems like the film doesn’t have anywhere to go. The plane is captured, the president is still aboard and the terrorists demand their orders be met or they will execute a hostage every half hour. Yet somehow the film keeps going without being boring. How much can happen on a single plane? More than you’d suspect. The film does maintain some of its momentum by following the story of those on the ground, specifically Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close), in their attempts to save the president.

I think a lot of the strengths of this film come from it being a Die Hard knockoff. Much like Die Hard, everything takes place in a rather confined area, help from the outside is slim to none and there isn’t an endless wave of evil terrorists. The president has to use, quick thinking, tight spaces and available gear to take on the terrorists. It lacks the snarky dialogue of Die Hard, although “get off my plane” is just as famous as John McClane’s signature line, but the rest of the structure is here.

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The entire film is a political testing ground for the speech the president made in the beginning, which was essentially a no tolerance policy towards all evildoers. But when it’s his family on the line and his wife who has a gun to her head is he going to play along or stick to his guns? Is it ever alright to give in or will just one allowance open up the floodgates of international terrorism? The film is both clever and disappointing in the fact that it gives enough leeway to both sides.

This is one of the handful of annoying elements in the film. Instead of seriously handling a hard-hitting political and moral issue it skirts by it altogether. But that’s hardly the most frustrating element. Our second nomination goes to the annoying actress Liesel Matthews who plays the president’s daughter. It’s strange because she’s a horribly bad actress here but she was solid in A Little Princess only a couple years earlier. Also annoying is a dirty traitor of the film is revealed in the first act when there could be so much more tension and suspense if we didn’t know who was the traitor. And last, but not least, is the horribly fake and excessive special effects.

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And the worst part is I don’t necessarily think most of these effects were essential to the action. At some point I think it’s better to let the audience fill in the blanks, especially when you consider all the really fake looking CG people who fall off the plane. If we see them fall out of the plane we don’t need to see a fake CG person plummeting towards the ocean. Aside from the bad CG, the action is solid and tense, never ridiculously silly, although the last half has an excessive number of explosions. It’s the thoughtful, plotting action of Die Hard in the best possible way.

Air Force One is a good action piece but has a lot of weight bringing it down. It’s disappointing that a film that takes on such a heavy political issue isn’t man enough to take a stand. Instead, it ducks for cover and tries to appease the most people at once. Sure, you would have pissed off half your audience if you swung one way or another but it would have been something important and a conversation starter instead of simply another skillfully crafted action flick without anything thoughtful behind it.

© 2009 James Blake Ewing

Air Force One [Blu-ray]