Sometime last year, I was sitting in a dark movie theater waiting for the feature presentation to begin. I don’t remember what movie I went to see, but I distinctly remember this particular experience.
A trailer began to play for a new action movie starring Gerard Butler – something about a pilot and a convict who have to team up in the wake of a plane crash to save the passengers from … someone? I don’t quite recall the specifics. The trailer seemed to be fairly standard trash action fare, and I didn’t really think about it too much. But when the name of the film popped up on screen – “PLANE,” stylized in big block letters against a black background – the theater, myself included, burst into laughter.
If Twitter is anything to go by, I was not the only person to have this experience. Unfortunately, the experience of seeing the “Plane” trailer for the first time might beat the experience of actually seeing the movie “Plane.” Director Jean-François Richet’s new film barely delivers on its cheesy action promises and takes too long to work up to the highs of its final set piece. Like a video game with too many cutscenes, “Plane” operates in spurts of action, giving the audience a little fun before suddenly going dormant in the interim.
“Plane” stars Butler as Brodie Torrance, a commercial pilot who manages to emergency land his plane in a remote area of the Philippines after it’s struck by lightning. Unfortunately for Brodie and the rest of the passengers, the island they’ve landed on is controlled by militias, one of which takes the passengers hostage while Brodie is away trying to find help. The pilot finds himself with no choice but to team up with Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter), another passenger who was being extradited on murder charges before the landing, to save the rest of the group.
That premise sounds promising for the trash action fan in all of us, but “Plane” is mired by awkward pacing and a strange rigidity that never lets the actors – or the audience – fully have fun. As Brodie, Butler turns up the Scottish lilt to eleven and does an admirable job taking up the mantle of an “I’m too old for this” action hero. He wheezes and grunts his way through emergency landings and hand-to-hand combat, grits his teeth and limps through multiple gunshot wounds that no normal person would be able to survive, much less fly a plane.
But the film only ever gives us a taste of what could have been, both in Butler’s performance and the action in general. The final set piece shows off Richet’s capabilities as an action director, succinctly setting up the stakes and punctuating the sequence with a number of explosive kills. But, for a film starring Gerard Butler as an avenging pilot, it’s strange that this is really the only action set piece of note. Despite the fact that everything about the situation these people have been put into is nerve wracking, the film seems allergic to the concept of building tension. During a rescue sequence, Brodie and Louis furtively make their way to where the passengers are held hostage, quietly overtaking anyone in their path. For anyone who has ever played the “Uncharted” video games, this sequence will feel quite familiar – the bad guys Brodie and Louis have to face simply stand there before the duo takes them down, or walk their routes chatting with each other while our heroes wait for them to pass. The film equates sneaking around bad guys, who are apparently not very good at their jobs, with tension. But it makes no effort to actually build tension or make us believe that Brodie or Louis are in any danger of being caught.
The odd couple energy between Brodie and Louis would theoretically be the film’s biggest selling point, but that relationship is barely developed or lingered on in any meaningful way. Every once in a while, the two actors manage to push through the script and pacing to find camaraderie, but the film is largely uninterested in any banter or chemistry between them. As Louis, Colter has a few quippy one liners here and there, but his character is mostly relegated to long bouts of silence. Any time Louis and Brodie disagree about the best way to handle a situation, the issue is cleared up in a matter of seconds, no friction to be found anywhere.
“Plane’s” tendency to lightly give and then yanketh away extends to just about every aspect of the film. Off the island, a group attempting to locate the plane is headed up by a former Special Forces officer named Scarsdale, played by Tony Goldwyn. When we’re first introduced to Scarsdale, Goldwyn whirls into the room in a blur of coats and scarves, immediately dressing everyone down and commanding your attention like only a former TV president can. I perked up at this introduction, ready to watch Goldwyn with the space to cook. But, like everything else in “Plane,” the flicker of fun burns out fast.