Air Force One
directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Columbia/Sony, 1997

Air Force One is a big plane. It's also a big movie, with a big budget, a big director, big stars, big special effects and big box-office receipts.

So why is it such a big disappointment?

Granted, it loses no time in getting off the ground. The action starts even before the opening titles end.

U.S. and Russian paratroopers drop in unannounced in a central Asian city where, between burp-gun bursts, they "wrap" a "package" named General Radek (Jurgen Prochnow), and bundle him off to Moscow, where he's imprisoned for trying to set up a terrorist regime in Kazakhstan. But U.S. President Jim Marshall (Harrison Ford) has hardly taken his kudos for committing U.S. troops to the action when he finds himself at the mercy of former Soviet communists turned Kazakhi terrorists who have hijacked Air Force One.

As if that weren't enough -- and nothing in Air Force One ever is -- Marshall has been accompanied on this trip by his wife, Grace (Wendy Crewson), and 12-year-old daughter, Alice (Liesel Matthews), which complicates things for Marshall but simplifies them for the audience: We know that sometime in the next 100 minutes Marshall is going to make a critical decision that pits the lives of his wife and daughter against the fate of the free world.

That makes Air Force One a kind of airborne Desperate Hours -- that venerable Humphrey Bogart hostage drama of the '50s -- though there's much about the latter that's missing in the former, such as plausibility.

Then, too, there's much about Air Force One that's missing in Desperate Hours, including a pistol-packing Kazakhi terrorist (Gary Oldman); guys wrestling in the open cargo door of a plane flying a zillion miles an hour at 15,000 feet; and the president of the United States, who's never piloted anything much bigger than a helicopter, flying a jumbo jet through a minefield of MIGs because the pilot and co-pilot have been done in.

That's one you're not likely to see again unless the Zuckers bring out Airplane III.

Director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, In the Line of Fire) is famous for pulse-pounding suspense, and there's no shortage of that here: Air Force One features a white-knuckles landing/takeoff that's hard not to flinch at and a parachute escape that will bring even the most hard-to-please critics to their feet. Moreover, Marshall's cat-and-mouse game with the terrorists features a slew of high-tech tricks that are bound to delight thriller buffs.

But with a premise that's stretched almost to the breaking point, and action sequences that are far less believable, Air Force One quickly becomes an unintentional parody of itself.

Petersen, Ford and Glenn Close, who plays Ford's ever-faithful vice president, have all done much better work. Air Force One only makes you realize how much better.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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