With the kind of career Gerard Butler had built for himself, going from romantic-leaning A-lister (The Ugly Truth) to cozy yet grizzled matinee icon (Copshop, Angel Has Fallen), one wonders whether his shtick will ever run dry. The response: Not yet, but your mileage may vary. An actor only as substantial as the scripts he’s handed, he’ll tend to give audiences a show, one with lean ham and plenty of fiber. His latest, Plane, looks to continue that trend, even when facing a near lack of inspiration. An overly generic-sounding name is the least of its troubles.
The biggest could be its MacGuffin: a freak storm cell hovering over the South China Sea. Captain Brodie Torrence (Butler) has seen his share of turbulence as an RAF pilot and commercial air helmsman, both inside a cabin and out. Though on an otherwise ho-hum New Year’s Eve run from Singapore to Tokyo, flying for Trailblazer Airlines, none of his training, a humbling demotion, or typical family strife could prepare him, or his co-pilot Samuel Dele (Yoson An) for one wild ride.
One where mother nature fries their comms, a group of separatists circle over them and their passengers as hostages after crash landing on their turf, and the unlikeliest ally is Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter), a convicted murderer on extradition back to North America. He and Brodie pull the mismatched opposites card, looking to keep one step ahead of rebel leader Lolo (Jeff Francisco), while covertly attempting to reach contacts back home. And in Brodie’s case, hopefully, make it home to her daughter. Not at all much to ask, though this plot pulls the right punches to overcomplicate every detail.
In the same vein as either Five Came Back or your run-of-the-mill go-to from Blockbuster on a Friday night – or nowadays, Tubi, such is mid-level action, the type guaranteed a long shelf life. Director Jean-François Richet (2005’s Assault on Precinct 13) is known well enough for pulling every stop in the name of an action spectacle. At about every corner, there’s enough on the visual spectrum to keep the viewer chewing on popcorn. Plane might still be starved for any manner of protein-rich depth or clarity, particularly when conveying fear, carnage, or urgency. Either of these three does come up short, appearing tired despite Butler using every bit of muscle to smash through the treacle in Charles Cumming and J.P. Davis’s screenplay.
If the lulls throughout Butler and Colter’s cadence were to be declared filler in between bursts of adrenaline, they’re at least refined, not paltry. The duo’s rapport on screen is infectious; a bromance whose echoes resonate with emotional wattage over mindless brawn. Particularly with the first act’s mild, tranquil stillness. Between them, a decent break, not a shatter from the typical. A deviation with conscience and lively activity. It fits his mold like a glove. Colter’s as well, supplanting raw ferocity with calm discretion. Likewise, to those on American soil looking to find their marks and protect Trailblazer’s PR image. Hampton (Paul-Ben Victor) and Scarsdale (a blisteringly sly Tony Goldwyn) are on the case, as are a core group of trained mercenaries. Expendables they aren’t, but they are enough to balance the scales with a middling villain arc.
The common enemy Torrence is dodging won’t be the most substantial this year (still early, obviously). Nevertheless, Francisco gives it a fair trial in resetting the bar to a moderate level, portraying overly familiar rage over unfamiliar visitors. The baddie here is a rough caricature of something Benecio del Toro would’ve handled with more viciousness. That’s putting it politely, with most of the evil energy circling more around plot devices over characters. Deeper moods of regret and credence are better suited with this cast, even those supporting players with stock profiles befitting an off-market version of Mystery Date. The flight staff, led by decisive attendant Bonnie (Daniella Pineda) fare better than the frantic passengers who bob and weave with the thematic flow, and little else.
And the same could apply to how the camera navigates through each set piece, often with greater ease than the aircraft. With how Brendan Galvin (Unhinged) captures the energy of a given shot – in particular, an uncertain close-up with Butler going complete wrestler, and with how David Rosenbloom (The Way Back) trims it into oft-befuddling coherence, it’s impossible to guess where the line falls on this production. I could instantly appreciate the inherent nods to classic testosterone-fueled shoot-em-ups of the eighties, and certainly those low-budget counterparts from, let’s say Godfrey Ho. Such an idea doesn’t bog down the simplistic logline, but it sticks in the mind, tamping down just how serious or silly Richet is willing to take his continental run.
Whichever mood makes better sense for this piece of January comfort food is best left to the viewer. Would Plane be a more enriching experience had there been a deeper invocation of danger versus a purely laughable antagonist and randomly placed bloodshed? I’d say yes. Could its character development have stuck out less? Also, yes. It’s far from perfect; the number of empty calories it burns before its resolution would be a shock to many. But I’ll give this to Richet: the entertainment value remains unburdened, despite a rocky series of dynamics to settle after a uniform takeoff. Even without solving all its quirks, there remains a wild and adventurous romp I wouldn’t feel guilty munching into again. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Plane is currently playing in theaters; rated R for violence and language; 107 minutes.