It’s probably unwise to trust our response to a movie in mid-summer, when our brains have been so battered by big, stupid blockbusters that any film that isn’t blatantly moronic looks like a masterpiece. (How else to explain the second-coming-of-Gump accolades for Contact?) Yet I should admit I had a good time at Air Force One, the latest Die Hard knock-off. The movie is derivative and by-the-numbers, with three separate scenes of Harrison Ford dangling from an airplane where one scene would have sufficed, but it has a confident snap as it goes about its business.
Ford, of course, is the President of the United States — James Marshall, a decorated Vietnam vet who’s tough on terrorists — and that’s both a fantasy and a bitter joke. Boldly decisive, stubbornly opposed to political maneuvering, honest and morally righteous, this man would never be elected to any office in America, let alone its highest. As the movie opens, a vicious Russian dictator (Jurgen Prochnow) has just been captured and imprisoned, and the gray heads of the United Nations convene to congratulate Marshall on his part in the capture. He makes a manly speech outlining his zero-tolerance approach to terrorism: Never negotiate, never compromise in the face of evil.
The stage could be set for a drama in which the unyielding President gets an ugly reality slap. But this is a summer action movie, and so the hero’s philosophy must be tested but never seriously challenged. A group of terrorists, led by a scruffy Gary Oldman, invade Air Force One and demand that the dictator be set free. Oldman and his pack of stoic killers think that Marshall has fled the plane in mid-air, by way of an escape pod (maybe they’ve seen Escape from New York), but the prez has decided to stay on the plane, hiding and picking off terrorists. President Solo, President Indy! What a man!
As the familiar cat-and-mouse plot unfolded, I stopped mourning the lost possibilities and let myself enjoy the unapologetic masculine thrills. Air Force One is always two steps away from being a comedy, maybe because it takes itself so seriously. Sometimes the seriousness works. The director, Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, In the Line of Fire), has never treated violence as a joke. Several of the gunfights are staged with the frightening chaos of the real thing, and Petersen puts full weight on the terror of a hostage who realizes, before our eyes, that she’s going to die. Oldman, in another great performance, speaks to her with a curious tenderness and perhaps a little sadness before he pulls the trigger.
The last act is a crisper (if sometimes less plausible) version of Executive Decision. Ford does his dangling, and the passengers must be removed from the failing plane. Air Force One abandons any pretense of drama and embraces the usual elaborate summer-movie logistics. Ford stares evil in the eye and growls that now-famous one-liner: Get off my plane! (It sounds amusingly like Mel Gibson’s Give me back my son!)
As usual, Ford drips with moral authority; he’s good at it but also too comfortable with it. I think he never got over the failure of the only movie in which he took a chance — The Mosquito Coast, where he played a rigid, uncompromising man who never admitted that he could be wrong. He plays the same role here, only now we’re supposed to cheer him on.