Nowadays it’s rare to see a multiplex movie with so little affect. And arriving in the second week of January as one of the few dumping-ground action programmers we thankfully still get, the bluntly titled Plane can be––and this is not a backhanded compliment necessarily––described as a VOD action movie that somehow escaped to theaters. Directed by French action craftsman Jean-François Richet, the kind of cineaste who probably grew up on Charles Bronson movies exported to Europe as opposed to Jean-Luc Godard at the cinematheque, the film can bring to mind both Clint Eastwood and even the late John Flynn in its formal simplicity.
Though the film’s chief attraction will be its star Gerard Butler, who seems to almost be veering into Keanu Reeves / Nicolas Cage “begrudging respect” territory just by keeping at it in these unpretentious action flicks. The actor, who permanently looks like he’s working off a hangover (and a close-up of his grunting face in the climax is a delight), shines as Captain Brodie Torrance (lowkey a very funny name). Given the rare chance to speak in his Scottish brogue, Butler gets to showcase some of the gravitas he’s gradually earned playing a minor authority figure who’s concurrently still a bit of a brutish loose cannon (willing to manhandle a belligerent passenger, seen in a cellphone video) and sad widower (he dotes on his college-age daughter who lives in California).
We catch up with the man in media res, walking through an airport so plainly ugly as shot in digital cinematography it borderline resembles 48 frames per second. He’s on his way to captaining a routine New Year’s Eve flight from Singapore to Tokyo. Complicating matters is one passenger, convicted murderer Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter), who’s being extradited to Toronto. But the worst comes when caught in the middle of a deadly storm over the pacific and he’s forced to make an emergency landing. The plane arrives in a part of the southern Philippines that can be described as a no-man’s land, being populated by criminals, rebels, and just overall bad dudes who see no problem in trying to capture and kill the passengers of this crashed flight. We of course cut back to a corporate airline control room populated by C-list characters like Tony Goldwyn and Paul-Ben Victor as the figures trying to navigate through a PR crisis that eventually results in them ordering mercenaries to take care of business. Yet Butler and Gaspare, like a pairing out of an ’80s Cannon title, team up to take up arms to defend the passengers.
The film, undeniably regressive, doesn’t choose to make the scowling Eastern villains members of, say, President Duterte’s death squadrons or anything, but the lack of disingenuous nuance is refreshing and speaks to Plane‘s charming, pared-down quality. A few “flourishes” aside––a down-and-dirty fight (the kind Paul Greengrass would try to capture from eight different angles in the span of ten seconds) done as a long take or a heartfelt phone call from his daughter, briefly spiking some sentimentality into the neutral tone of the film––virtually everything is streamlined.
It must be said that Richet, remembering what’s important in an R-rated potboiler like this, makes sure the violence still lands, be it the thud of a hammer or a body decimated by a sniper bullet––not to mention the time it makes for a pained expression on Butler’s face after the aforementioned long-take fight. While Plane is meant to be a disposable object, the marks of intelligent filmmaking will make it linger as a positive point of comparison against various irritatingly tongue-in-cheek, cartoonish action films of late.
Plane is now in wide release.