"So, then we come to Air Force One. Explain your thought process behind this poster." "Well, Mr. Lipton, I wanted to communicate the idea that Harrison Ford is in this movie, and that it takes place on a plane..."
Die Hard on Air Force One with President Harrison Ford. There, that’s all you need to know about the movie. You can stop reading now.
Made around the time that Harrison Ford was still a huge star, but more for espionage and law-enforcement thrillers than the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, Air Force One was pretty well-received when it was released, both by critics and the more important opinion of the public’s wallets. Don’t let that fool you. While it’s directed by Wolfgang Peterson of Das Boot and Troy, and features the intriguing premise of the POTUS blowing away Commie punks, this is a movie that manages to take itself quite seriously and wind up hamming it up anyway.
"My fellow Americans... God, I can't stand you people."
The opening credits are pretty rough. Nowadays, when there’s any credits at all at the beginning of a movie, the names tend to be part of an elaborate montage. Not here. We have stirring (i.e. generic) patriotic music while blue text in title case tells us the names of everyone who lifted a finger for the damn movie, with a riveting black background. Hell, the orchestra’s run out of energy by the Visual Effects Supervisor credit! At least there’s two future 24 regulars in the mix (Xander Berkeley and Glenn Morshower), which makes it easier to digitally insert Jack Bauer into the proceedings with my mind. WHO ARE YOU WORKING FOR?!?!?
"Sorry, sir, we can't let you pass. You're not blue like in the photo."
The movie opens with American and Russian special forces parachuting into a Kazhakstani military installation, using silenced rifles to shoot the rooftop guards as they glide in. I’m a little doubtful that anyone could accurately fire a rifle, taking only one shot to kill each target, while parachuting, and that they’d be able to swoop in below gigantic white sails at night without being seen, much less that they’d let their entire mission hinge on that stroke of luck. But as we all know, if looks cool, it works. They succeed in their mission to kidnap the villainous Kazhakstani leader, General Radek, who’s apparently the rare dictator of a troubled country that can’t get either the Russians or the Americans to like him. I presume that the scheme allows the former Kazhak government (presumably headed by the lovely and awesomely-named Nursultan Nazarbayev) to take back power, since it’s a pretty blatant act of war otherwise.
A few weeks later, at a conference in Russia, President Kick-Ass (Harrison Ford) gives a speech announcing that America’s going to get tougher on terrorism. After the speech, his own advisors ream him out for such a brazen announcement, one that complicates their foreign policy agenda and commits them to being more aggressive. So what was the guy supposed to say, that they were going to chill out and smoke some doobies with the terrorists? And since when did announcing a policy actually mean a president had to follow up on it?
"Admiral Gardner, would you care to explain this 'C' in Calculus?"
But it‘s time to head home, so we cut to Air Force One waiting on the tarmac, with the trumpets blaring so loudly that I wonder if it’s flying back to Washington, or to the frikkin’ moon. Boarding the plane are President Kick-Ass, First Lady Grace Marshall (Wendy Crewson), 12-year-old First Daughter Alice (Liesel Matthews), a bunch of cabinet members including National Security Advisor Jack Doherty (Tom Everett) and Major Caldwell (William H. Macy), and innocuously enough, a half-dozen or so Russian journalists led by Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman). Spellcheck doesn’t much like that name, so I’ll just call him Ivan. Overall, it’s going to be a pretty relaxed flight back home, because President Kick-Ass is actually pretty mellow. And we know he’s really just a great American, too, because he puts watching a tape-recorded football game over an urgent national security briefing. What a guy! I know I want my president to be just a regular guy, brushing off urgent affairs of state because there’s FUH-BAWL on the tube!
"Oh baby, you make me forget all about Anne Heche."
But after Air Force One takes off, mischief starts brewing. I know that this might be shocking, considering that this is a mid-’90s action movie, but Gary Oldman is actually playing a bad guy! He’s a Kazhak (NOT Borat) and a terrorist, and he and his team are planning to hijack the plane. Now, it might seem unbelievable that the American military would allow foreign journalists, even if they’re secretly well-trained terrorists, to take over the plane. So let’s fall back on that old staple, the traitorous Secret Service agent! It’s Agent Gibbs (Xander Berkeley), who’s betraying his country, assisting terrorists, and putting his life at incredible risk because he’s just kind of dissatisfied with his job. After killing a few fellow agents and helping Ivan and his cronies to a weapons locker (which apparently includes some plastic explosives, as we’ll see in a few minutes; never know when Service Agents might need some of that), he blends back into crowd, apparently gambling that when an official investigation gets underway, nobody’ll make much of the Secret Service agent who suddenly retires with a boatload of cash.
Ivan and the terrorists shoot a lot of people and start taking over the plane, easily mowing down the American agents and officers who outnumber them. During the panic, the non-traitorous Secret Service guys rush President Kick-Ass into his little escape pod and eject him from the plane, or so they think. The pilots try to land the plane at Rammstein Air Force Base in Germany, but Ivan blasts his way into the cabin and takes the controls, sending them back into the air.
"Take him down! He brought a liquid onto the plane!"
Funnily enough, this agitates a lot of people back in Washington, who demonstrate their agitation by talking quickly as they walk off of helicopters and starting a lot of sentences with, “How the hell did…” Among these rather upset people are Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) and Secretary of Defense Walter Dean (Dean Stockwell). They’re contacted by Ivan, who’s flying the plane to Kazhakstan and has control of the hostages. He informs Washington that unless they get the Russians to release General Radek, they’ll start killing a hostage every half-hour. Obviously, this ultimatum would have been more effective if they had the President, but they make lemons out of lemonade. National Security Advisor Doherty gets to play the role of the corporate prick from Die Hard who offers to help negotiate a deal for the bad guys and winds up with a bullet in his head for his troubles.
"I SAID, THIS SENATE SEAT IS ****ING GOLDEN!"
The Secretary of Defense objects to giving into the demand, convinced that Radek is so powerful that if released, he could take control of all of Eastern Europe. Or something. I’m not sure post-Communist Russia’s doing so well if its survival is really jeopardized by the presence of one military strongman in one former USSR republic. But Washington’s got another problem: they discover that the escape pod is empty, and therefore, the President’s still on the plane, opting to solve the terrorist crisis himself rather than get himself to safety. He’s President Kick-Ass after all, and President Kick-Ass’ policy is to support legislation that kicks Russian terrorist ass. It’s a bi-partisan bill in that both the left and right ass-cheeks of each terrorist will be kicked. Meanwhile, he pushes forward an executive order to increase the tax burden on the upper bracket of the terrorists’ skulls, which will in turn have an inflationary effect on their very bloody noses. But due to the harsh economic climate, President Kick-Ass supports a bailout: a bailout of every damn terrorist from 40,000 feet.
Okay. I’m done.
"I've been waiting for the perfect moment..."
President Kick-Ass promptly enacts his agenda, although slowly since there’s only a handful of terrorists he can kill over the course of a two-hour movie. But he does manage to knock them off one at a time, punching one’s lights out and machine-gunning another. He uses his cell phone to call Washington to let them know that he’s alive, if completely irresponsible and impulsive. When a terrorist captures him, he covertly orders for the American jets tailing the plane to fire on Air Force One, so that the turbulence lets the old man once again overpower the considerably younger, stronger, and more armed (fully compared to not at all) villain.
"Wait, say that again. Stupid Verizon keeps breaking up. There's a man with gum to my heft?"
All this time, Ivan thinks that the guy hiding below decks and picking off his men one-by-one is a renegade Secret Service agent (or Jason Voorhees). So he does the only thing you can really expect a guy with hostages to do, which is call out to the guy to surrender or else he’ll execute a hostage. Let’s be fully fair here: when you put a terrorist into a tough position, it’s only reasonable that he use what’s available to him, and it’s the fault of the oppressive American foreign policy that he be placed in such a position. So it’s not really Ivan’s fault that he has to murder the Deputy Press Secretary, who just happens to be an attractive young lady (although not Dana Perino-level attractive). And it’s a very difficult moral decision, just like it was in Die Hard when pretty much the exact same thing happened (although with a slimy corporate kiss-ass, so I guess this counts as originality). The other hostages hear what’s happened, and some guy I only know as Mashed Potato Face decries the choice to let her die instead of giving up, wishing that Washington would just cave in and give the terrorists what they want. It’s subtly implied that this guy’s approach would be the wrong thing to do, or at least that’s the vibe I’m getting.
Al Gore has drawn some criticism for his use of a particularly environmentally-unfriendly private jet.
President Kick-Ass realizes that his guilt at letting the woman die can only be assuaged by kicking ass even harder, so he fiddles with the plane’s wiring so that it starts leaking fuel. As expected, the terrorists demand a mid-air refueling, which the good guys have calculated will force the plane to fly low enough that people could parachute out. So while the terrorists start the refueling, the President sneaks in to free most of the hostages (except the First Lady and First Daughter, whom Ivan’s keeping pretty close) by dropping them off in parachutes out the back of the plane. And let me tell you, it’s hard to have a dopier cinematic moment than a fat hostage smiling like an idiot as she parachutes through the clouds and patriotic music swells. Most of the military personnel stay to help the President rescue the First Family, but things go badly when Ivan realizes that he’s misplaced, you know, 90% of the people on the plane. A combination of events cause the refueling plane to spark and explode, many of the heroic military officers to deplane anyway (sans parachute), and the remaining non-terrorists on the plane (President Kick-Ass, Caldwell, Mashed Potato Face, still-pretending-to-be-a-good-guy Gibbs, First Jacqueline Kennedy Clone, and First Screaming Pre-Teen Girl) to all wind up in terrorist hands.
"Bah! What does Harrison Ford have that I don't?"
Back in Washington, the press has finally gotten wind that something’s up, and Vice President Bennett gives in and announces that Air Force One has been hijacked. This is actually an improvement on what CNN had reported, which was that Air Force One had crashed and everyone had died. I’m not sure the executives at CNN are self-aware enough to realize that even though their network gets plenty of attention in this movie, they're depicted as going live with such unreliable information that they declare the President DEAD. That's probably not something I'd like in my cable news.
What a terrible movie. They couldn't even spell 'cognition' correctly.
Back on the plane, the President being captured allows us to finally have the Kick-Ass/Ivan face-to-face showdown we’d long been waiting for. You see, Ivan is a very excitable fellow. I think that when Gary Oldman, generally a fine actor, was told he was playing a Russian terrorist, he prepared for the part by watching Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons (or, through the miracle of time travel, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), drinking forty cups of coffee, and studying chimpanzees in heat. Suffice to say that he’s somewhat disrespectful toward the President. The new situation convinces the Vice President to give in to the demands and have the Russians prepare to release Radek. Because Russia is such a good friend of the US that they’ll endure an inevitable war with a neighboring country. Quite touching, really.
Gary Oldman's nude performance art drew mixed reactions.
But as we all know, when the bad guys have the good guys tied up and held at gunpoint, someone just needs to loosen his hand restraints and leap at the villains at the right moment to enact an escape. Nope, no clever deception or multi-layered plan here: just cut that tape with a shard of broken glass and start issuing five-fingered vetoes. President Kick-Ass does just that, killing two of the remaining terrorists and getting rescued when the suddenly-heroic Mashed Potato Face throws himself in front of an incoming bullet. In a scene not remotely resembling the end of Die Hard, Ivan stands at the back of the plane, equipping a parachute and threatening to throw the hero’s wife out the back if he doesn’t back down. How the President overcomes this situation is too generic to describe, although the method of killing Ivan is fairly amusing: he strangles him with his own parachute cord and tells him, “Get off my plane!” I would have had him say something like, “Your supermajority‘s all gone, and you just got vetoed!” or “No pardon for you!” but I clearly take this movie even less seriously than the filmmakers did. With the good guys back in control of Air Force One, they no longer need to have the Russians release Radek, which means the Russians get to shoot him dead as he tries to board his helicopter. Maybe they should have done something like that a while ago.
But don’t think this is over! The movie’s only at about the 90-minute mark, and we need more special effects shots to use in the trailers! So as the President flies Air Force One back away from Kazhakstan, Kazhak fighters start shooting at them, clearly authorized to instigate all-out-war against the US despite the lack of any remaining possible gain. A squadron of US fighters takes them out, and one brave pilot even sacrifices himself by flying in front of a missile, kind of like the scene three minutes ago where the Mashed Potato Face jumped in front of the bullet. They cut out the scene that further escalated this theme, where Delaware saved the President by leaping in front of an ICBM for him. In any event, the shootout leaves Air Force One very damaged, out of parachutes, and unable to reach a friendly air base before it’ll run out of fuel.
"I told you to press the red, blue, and yellow buttons! You pressed the red, blue, and green buttons! Now let me see you do it right!"
So they rig a solution whereby, during the last few minutes before they run out of fuel, a military plane connects to Air Force One via a giant zip line, and marines will be zipped down onto Air Force One, and then the remaining people will be zipped back out the other way. People get evacuated one-by-one this way, including Mashed Potato Face, who apparently gets to both be heroic and survive the movie. President Kick-Ass, being a good guy in charge of a military that takes his safety as more of a recommendation than an imperative, is among the last to go. However, Air Force One is sinking too fast, so Caldwell, a marine, Gibbs, and the President are left aboard with only time to get one more zipped back to the safety of the other plane. So Gibbs finally reveals his true colors and shoots the marine and Caldwell; they just had to kill off the most likable supporting character at the last minute. Once again, there’s a generic struggle that Gibbs loses, and the President zips his way off the plane before it goes down, crashing into the ocean with computer-generated special effects that rival those when you get shot down in Star Fox. The President’s safe, so the music’s triumphant, people in Washington are cheering, and the fact that dozens of Americans have died--perhaps more than if the President had ejected from the plane and they’d shot it down in the first place--is swept under the rug.
"Mr. President, no, I don't think hiding in an asteroid field is practical."
On its face, Air Force One doesn’t seem so bad. It’s a generic summer action blockbuster with the nifty premise of Harrison Ford as a president who beats up terrorists himself. And it’s not THAT much worse than what you’d expect from that description, except that it’s got an unusually high number of lazy plot contrivances, its mid-air special effects have aged poorly, its musical score is so generic that it’s really quite breathtaking (Wikipedia notes that Jerry Goldsmith was hired to write it at the last second, so I guess he‘s not to blame), and the movie kills off so many good guys so periodically that it’s oddly depressing, even when it’s supposed to be uplifting. The parts where President Kick-Ass and my mentally-inserted Jack Bauer teamed up to torture terrorists were among the few highlights.
"Control, this is Sullenberger. Didn't go quite as well this time. Over."
So it’s not a particularly notable movie, and I don’t have anything against any of the people involved; most of the actors are capable of being very good, and do all right here, and most of the prominent crew (except screenwriter Andrew Marlowe, who might have peaked with either this or Hollow Man) have all worked on movies I’ve liked. It’s just a perfectly normal bad movie, offending none of my sensibilities except that I prefer to see things that are good.
So, um, that’s it. It’s a bad movie. That’s my conclusion. Yep.