Plane debuts in theaters on Jan. 13, 2023.
Theatrical audiences were first introduced to Plane — the latest action-thriller rescued from a Redbox premiere by Gerard Butler’s presence — through its head-scratching trailer. It had one of the funniest title reveals in recent memory, between the gravity with which its five simple letters appear across the screen, and the fact that it seemed to have little to do with an airplane at all, beyond its first few seconds (picture watching a Titanic advert only for the movie to be called “Automobile” since that’s how Rose reaches the harbor). However, in an early twist to the new year, not only does the plane in question have a large and vital presence in the movie, but Jean-François Richet’s tale of a plane trip gone awry, and a subsequent escape from a Filipino jungle teeming with militants, isn’t just competently crafted, but pretty enjoyable too.
The marketing may try to sell you a whiz-bang action movie, but Plane is surprisingly measured, starting with an extremely process-oriented, borderline cinema verité look at the titular plane and its passengers — not unlike Paul Greengrass’ approach to United 93 — from the instruments, to the boarding process, to the initial ascent. The mundane has rarely felt so engrossing in a B-movie made with an A-movie budget. However, unlike United 93, a biopic Plane is not, which becomes all too clear when the vessel’s captain, Brodie Torrance (Butler), must suddenly reckon with the fact that he has a dangerous prisoner on board, Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter), who’s being extradited from Torrance’s home base of Singapore back to the United States because he’s wanted for murder. Drama is in the air. Something, it seems, is bound to go terribly wrong, as Torrance tries to make it to his teenage daughter in Hawaii in time for the new year (which both makes Plane a fitting January release, and supposedly explains why there are only a dozen passengers on board, making for a more streamlined plot and production).
However, Gaspare’s presence isn’t the problem. The major issue turns out to be a stroke of bad luck coupled with some shoddy maintenance, leaving Trailblazer Airlines flight 119 — the company’s name is just the tip of the iceberg — vulnerable to the elements. The result is distinctly Lost-esque turbulence, and an emergency landing on the Philippine island of Jolo (shot mostly in Puerto Rico). As with J.J. Abrams’ Lost pilot, the air marshal escorting the handcuffed prisoner ends up incapacitated, and the surviving crew and passengers are left radio-less and are forced to ration their food. But unlike Lost’s assortment of ghosts and smoke monsters, Plane’s villainous forces, hiding deep in the jungle, are much easier to parse. Which is to say: they are human militants who have a penchant for kidnapping foreigners. However, their motives remain as mysterious as any of Abrams’ mystery box baddies.
The real Jolo is a stronghold for Abu Sayyaf, a Southeast Asian ISIS offshoot, but you’d need a working knowledge of the region to decipher anything of the sort. The film’s geopolitics never come close to being explicit, which makes it all the stranger when the image-conscious Trailblazer inexplicably sends its own team of private mercenaries (most of them American) to help rescue the survivors and avoid a PR disaster. An implicit West-versus-Asian-Other framework emerges — more specifically, West-versus-Islamic-Terror, if you’re familiar with Jolo’s kidnappings and brutal killings — and it becomes all the more pronounced when it turns out that both the Scotsman Torrance and American Gaspare, who venture into the jungle for help and end up armed to the teeth, have early 2000s military backgrounds of their own. But reality is rarely important in Richet’s film, which turns its militant separatists into two-dimensional video game henchmen, who deserve to be dispensed with by virtue of an inherent ruthlessness that threatens the western passengers.
It would be one thing if this were the basis for a farcical, blood-soaked beat-‘em-up with ridiculous stylings, but Plane stays grounded for the most part, making these racial optics even harder to avoid the few times the movie does try to indulge in gleeful violence. The villains always verge on human; they may not be complex enough to feel sympathetic, but they aren’t dehumanized enough to feel cartoonishly dispensable either. (It, oddly, feels like it’s not committed to its gimmick enough, despite that gimmick’s uncomfortable undertones.)
That said, Richet’s fixations lie less in the story’s violence, and more in winding up the tension as Torrance and Gaspare weave in and out of the larger group, sometimes observing helplessly from afar as the militants take control, while other times getting involved, only to have their asses handed to them until backup arrives. The initial plot unfolds with a procedural minimalism rarely backed by a musical score, forcing Butler to be the film’s emotional center amidst makeshift attempts to get messages to Trailblazer’s dingy boardroom. Don’t let Plane’s realism be a deterrence, though; it also builds to one of the goofiest and most satisfying kills in recent memory, even if the jagged edges of the movie’s bloodshed have been sanded down to an extremely soft R rating. There are times when the violence is presented off-screen by necessity, when the story hopes to introduce an element of mystery to Gaspare’s actions and his character, but when the camera does eventually focus on what ought to be hilariously gruesome, this is seldom the result.
With the likes of Geostorm and Den of Thieves, Butler has become a reliable action presence (where Dwayne Johnson is a brand, Butler is usually an every-dad), maintaining just enough intensity to sell you on a story that, though it lacks any real moral dimensions, at least has the appearance of urgency. Torrance is a straight-shooter who wants nothing more than to protect his passengers and to get back to his daughter, even if it means making the risky decision to uncuff Gaspare and seek his help. However, this ambiguous story, of Gaspare’s humanity being judged and only conditionally granted, is quickly swept away in favor of fireworks, leaving only the more polygonal sketch of men-on-a-mission.
Neither the men nor their mission have surprising dimensions, but the familiarity of Richet’s workman execution keeps things moving smoothly along. You could do a lot worse in January.
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