A pilot finds himself caught in a war zone after he's forced to land his commercial aircraft during a terrible storm
Like a long-delayed flight held over for 20 hours—or 20 years—Plane lands in cinemas, carrying with it an uncanny resemblance to the cheap-and-cheerful action films that once dominated the multiplexes, but which are now often sent direct to streaming. The film’s trailer made a small but endearing splash online, with its combination of throwback settings (Airplanes! Jungles!), Gerard Butler looking suitably pissed off, and the reveal of a title so simple it had to be a joke. This all gave Plane a sense of being a no-strings-attached action vehicle and, to borrow the tagline from the slasher Pieces (1982), Plane is “exactly what you think it is.” For better and for worse.
Plane really is the unashamedly stupid film it appeared to be, and exists in two distinct realms; it’s both satisfying and unsatisfying. It’s reliable and familiar but also predictable and unsurprising. It hits the beats one expects, but like seeing a band perform their most popular song for the hundredth time, it feels like we’re going through the motions. The years that have passed between Plane and its most obvious comparisons do offer it a bit of an edge, but that doesn’t excuse it feeling so rote.
The film follows commercial pilot Brodie Torrance (Gerard Butler), a widowed single father living a continent away from his college-bound daughter. We meet him mid-call, promising he’ll see her tomorrow, New Year’s Day. If this wasn’t enough to hammer the stakes home, we get a spiel between Brodie and his co-pilot Dele (Yoson An) in which they show each other photos of their respective families, and mention once again how much they’re looking forward to seeing them.
Dead wives, estranged daughters, and one-last jobs are all thrown in without irony, each a tick in the column of what one expects of these films. And if a subversion of these ideas is teased through the sheer absurdity of how straight they’re played, then you may find yourself wanting. Plane isn’t a film concerned with being clever or deconstructing anything. And to its favour, this means there’s a lack of smugness, quipping, or the sort of mugging that often accompanies movies that like to think they’re better than the material. But it also means there are few surprises.
So, when Torrance reveals he’s ex-RAF, it’s hardly a shock. This is Gerard Butler! He looks wrong when he doesn’t have a gun in his hand. The set-up required to get to this point where his palm meets steel is easily the film’s strongest section. The flight, populated by a dozen or so passengers, will have to fight through vicious storms so that it can save the airline a few thousand dollars worth of fuel. Most notable of the passengers is Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter), a handcuffed convict being extradited for a murder that took place decades prior.
But storm and criminals be damned; Torrance is a man who’s good at his job. He’s not always going by the book, of course—as demonstrated by a hysterical video of him choking out a belligerent passenger, which in turn led to him being stuck piloting undesirable flights on New Year’s Eve—but if anyone can get this plane home safe, by god it’s him!
Butler is immensely appealing here. Wearing his Scottishness with pride (at one point early on he asks for haggis, neaps, and tatties), and with a total lack of superiority, he dives into the pilot’s seat with a natural likability that only gets better with age. He wears a face of thick stubble and tangible age lines which work to give more character and texture to him, and the earnestness with which he tackles some of the most well-used, hand-me-down dialogue gives the proceedings a genuine sweetness.
But even a man like Butler can’t control the weather (perhaps that will come in the sequel). Soon after taking off, storms begin battering the plane. Here we get a chance to meet with some of his passengers, such as flight attendant Bonnie (Danielle Pineda), who is, at a stretch, the most notable of the bunch besides Louis Gaspare, but that’s only because she’s on-screen the most. Pineda’s a good actor given absolutely nothing to do here. Elsewhere, are the quickly-scribbled caricatures of dickheads (familiar face Joey Slotnik makes Plane feel even more like a 90’s throwback), vloggers, and people who, at most, can be described as ‘having faces’.
It isn’t a major issue to begin with, because most tickets for Plane will be purchased to see Gerard Butler. Regardless of director, co-stars, or mode of transport, Plane really could have had the alternate title Gerard Butler: The Movie. But the film falls in a strange murky area, in which you really don’t care what happens to anyone of the passengers in a film that’s entirely about saving said group of passengers.
After the plane gets struck by lightning, it loses its electronics and Torrance and his co-pilot must contend with the possibility of making an emergency landing. Here there’s some solid tension building from director Jean-Francois Richet. The dodgy VFX exteriors of the plane don’t matter so much, because inside is a pretty neat pressure cooker filled with the necessary ingredients: Gaspare makes glances towards the gun of his custodian; a stewardess is killed during the turbulence; Torrance badly hits his head when he goes to check on his passengers.
The film operates best when it is a tight chamber-piece thriller akin to Jaume Collet-Serra’s Non-Stop (2014), or a B Movie inverse of Sully: Miracle on the Hudson: (2016). But after Torrance is forced to make an emergency landing on a small island, the film loses so much of the momentum and tension it had built to that point.
After disembarking the plane, and being surrounded by mysterious jungles on every side, the crew and passengers gather around their de-facto leader who gives them the bad news: they are miles off course, and it will take a miracle for them to be found. Then they realise the tiny island where they have to wait for potential rescue just so happens to be run by a group of militarised Filipino rebels.
Plane quickly undergoes a troubling listlessness, as if by being on solid ground it has nowhere to roam. Like waiting for a flight, all you can do is kill time until you’re ready to board again. The passengers who were blanks up in the air are even more anonymous on the ground. But because we are supposed to care about them, Richet doesn’t give us the giddy pleasure of seeing them get knocked off one by one.
The baddies are equally uninteresting, vaguely racist caricatures who spawn endlessly and spend most of their time shooting their AK-47s into the air. When they capture the passengers and hold them hostage there is little tension to be found, particularly as the two characters of any worth have set out on their own. Torrance frees Gaspare after his custodian is killed during the turbulence, and decides that Gaspare is probably more of a help than a hindrance. The two set off into the jungle because, well, there seemingly isn’t much else to do on this island.
Mike Colter (Luke Cage) is a steady and reliable hand, giving shades of ambiguity to Gaspare that isn’t present in the screenplay. His charisma bounces smartly off Butler’s; here it’s quite inviting to daydream about the two running off together to a better and more interesting film.
All the more frustrating is the fact that Richet offers moments of some inspired filmmaking. Torrance’s first encounter with a bad guy takes the form of a hand-to-hand brawl in an abandoned, building overgrown by the plants of the jungle. The camera tilts madly one way then the other in an attempt to capture the fight, the physicality of the scene playing out in one tense long take. Torrance isn’t afforded an easy first kill—it’s the first and only time we feel any real weight of death and violence in the film.
Later, Richet invites already apparent comparisons to video games (most notably the Far Cry series) with the tease of first-person images recorded on a soldier’s bodycam. And found-weapons (the gruesome use of a sledgehammer is a highlight) give the sense there are levels to be worked through and bosses to be beaten. This is why it’s so disappointing that at almost every given chance, it descends into mediocre gunfights, shot with back-and-forth mechanicalness. The chances for sandbox playfulness are squandered in set pieces that lack wit and tension, but certainly don’t lack bullets.
If the John Wick films have shown that a John Woo-style inspired gunfight can still be balletic and brawny in equal measure, then Plane suggests that in the wrong hands a gunfight is still the thudding and lazy copout it always had the potential to be. Scores of faceless henchmen are wiped out as our heroes run from the plane into the jungle, and then back to the plane again. It feels like a fetch quest in the worst way.
By the time Plane jumps out of the hamster wheel and decides, somewhat arbitrarily, that it’s time to wrap things up, it is hard not to feel as if you’ve just been on an utterly pointless diversion. And in a sense, that’s what Plane is. The bar for this kind of film is not particularly high, but the fact that this film is competent, and that it exists, doesn’t feel enough.
Its thorough lack of imagination and technical inventiveness result in a film that invites the kind of zoning out that accompanies a late-night film on TV. And perhaps that’s Plane‘s future and the viewing configuration which will be kindest to it. It is by design intended to be half-watched. Butler and Colter do their best to give the thing some fuel, and it’s an admirable attempt on their part. But with so little interpersonal drama at play, they’re forced to go through the motions with their respective charisma just barely saving the day.
It’s true that cinemas are starved of great action filmmaking, but Plane is a mid-flight bag of over-salted nuts: it isn’t truly satisfying and will leave you hungrier than you were before, but hey, it’s something.
UK • USA | 2023 | 107 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Jean-François Richet.
writers: Charles Cumming & J.P Davis (story by Charles Cumming).
starring: Gerard Butler, Mike Colter, Yoson An, Tony Goldywn, Daniella Pineda, Paul Ben-Victor, Remi Adeleke, Joey Slotnick, Evan Dane Taylor, Claro De Los Reyes, Kelly Gale & Lilly Krug.