Wednesday, November 7, 2012

In Theaters: FLIGHT (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis.  Written by John Gatins.  Cast: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Bruce Greenwood, Tamara Tunie, Nadine Velazquez, Brian Geraghty, Keven Gerety, James Badge Dale, Garcelle Beauvais. (R, 139 mins)

Veteran airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) wakes up in an airport hotel room in Orlando with a naked woman and a floor littered with empty bottles. Groggy and hungover, he does a quick line of coke to balance himself out.  It's 7:00 am and he's piloting a 9:00 am flight to Atlanta.  The woman, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez) is one of his flight's attendants.  Whip is good to go and feelin' alright, as evidenced by a shot of Washington striding through the airport terminal to the tune of Joe Cocker's version of Traffic's "Feelin' Alright."

The planned 52-minute flight experiences some major turbulence but Whip gets them through it.  Only later, after Whip hands the controls over to co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), pours three mini bottles of Smirnoff into his orange juice and takes a quick nap in the pilot's seat, does all hell break loose.  The plane starts to nosedive and and West's steering mechanisms fail.  Whip decides to "roll" the plane by veering it to the point where it flies upside down, evening out the plane and stopping the dive.  All power eventually fails and Whip guides the plane to a crash landing just past a small church (MESSAGE!), losing six of the 102 passengers onboard.  Two crew members are killed, including Katerina.  Whip's daring method of handling the crash turns him into a hero, but there's a problem.  Standard NTSB protocol after a crash is to draw blood for analysis.  Whip was battered in the crash and unconscous for several hours and doesn't recall the blood being drawn.  They find the alcohol and cocaine in his system, and despite the clear reason for the crash being a faulty rear elevator assembly that caused the plane to nosedive, Whip's extracurricular actitivies present the possiblity that he's on the hook for manslaughter in the passenger deaths.

FLIGHT would seem to offer Washington the kind of tour de force that results in instant Oscar buzz.  He's a great actor, one of the best, but even he has a hard time elevating this beyond the point of hackneyed and predictable.  After the harrowing opening 20 or so minutes, the film turns into the kind of by-the-numbers addiction drama that frankly, we've seen a hundred times before.  While in the hospital, Whip meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict recovering from an overdose, and they become friends after he's discharged.  She cleans up her act and tries to help him, but Whip, the kind of guy who doesn't need any help and shuts out anyone who tries, continues to drink and use.  Director Robert Zemeckis, helming his first live-action film since 2000's CAST AWAY, can't resist repeatedly hammering home the plot points over and over again, usually with the ham-fisted use of a popular song accompanying the scene just in case the audience is too dense to get it.  Was it necessary for a scene of Reilly shooting up to use both the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge" and Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane"?  Or to have Whip's dealer (John Goodman) introduced to the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil"?  FLIGHT starts out believably grim and realistic--as a character, the arrogant, irresponsible Whip is only slightly less of an asshole than Washington's Alonzo Harris in TRAINING DAY--but it grows increasingly "Hollywood" the more it proceeds towards it inevitably uplifting ending.  Allowing Whip some level of redemption is fine, but the path to it just feels hollow.  Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins (COACH CARTER, REAL STEEL) completely lose it in the home stretch when the perpetually self-destructive Whip falls off the wagon hard the night before a federal hearing and his lawyer (Don Cheadle) and union rep (Bruce Greenwood) resort to methods of sobering him up that very nearly turn the film into a comedy.  Let's just say it prompts Zemeckis to use an instrumental Muzak version of The Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends."

There's a lot of good things about FLIGHT.  Washington commands the screen, which should surprise no one.  British actress Reilly believably handles a southern American accent.  The terrifying crash sequence is easily the film's highlight.  But the film just really loses its way in the second half before utterly collapsing in the last half hour.  A lot of us have seen functioning alcoholics in action, but FLIGHT takes functioning alcoholism to ridiculous extremes, with Whip consuming amounts of alcohol that no one could handle, let alone fly a plane or calmly testify at a hearing.  At some point, despite a solid start, FLIGHT becomes less concerned with the plausible depiction of Whip's personal hell and more focused on getting Denzel Washington another Oscar.

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