R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Die Hard on a Plane

Not that long ago, my column was completely consumed by the cinematic exploits of Man-God and Action star Chuck Norris. Eventually, of course my attention would have to come to Delta Force, and in my column I mentioned a discussion that fellow IP writer Scott Sawitz and I had about which Action films of the past would probably not even be considered for production in a post-9/11 world. Movies such as Delta Force and Invasion U.S.A. were the first films that came to my mind, due to their themes of terrorists getting smacked down by G.I. Joe style heroes with no consequences what so ever.

As I’ve gone through my preparations for the new Die Hard, a few more of these movies seemed to pop up, as these seemingly indestructible heroes have to deal with megalomaniacs bent on destruction. This seems to go double for these films that seem to take place on an aircraft, as terrorists’ hijacking a plane seems to be a concept that is still too close to home and elicits not a feeling of escapism, but brings us too close to reality. Yet to watch these films now seems to bring us back to a simpler time, before the tragedies of the last few years had taken place. Watched merely an imitation of the Die Hard concept, these can still be fun movies, and enjoyed on their own level, even if they’re not particularly good of their own merit.

Passenger 57 Starring Wesley Snipes, Bruce Payne, and Tom Sizemore. Directed by Kevin Hooks

I’m sure at the time it came out, Passenger 57 seemed like a great idea, as taking Die Hard’s concept, which had already worked twice already, and putting it in the air should have been a walk in the park. With a complete bad ass and a crazy villain fighting over the fate of hundreds of passengers, the movie should be an action packed thrill ride until the final frame, but unfortunately, in the hands of Director Kevin Hooks, Passenger 57 ends up only a mild diversion. Fans looking to fill their shelves with the entire “Die Hard on a ” subgenre should probably wait to get this one after you’ve already purchased Speed and Under Siege.

The movie does have some things going for it though. First and foremost is of course Wesley Snipes as John Cutter, a former cop and airline security expert who just happens to be a passenger on a flight that gets hijacked by notorious terrorist Charles Rane (Bruce Payne). This was one of Snipes’ earlier attempts at really becoming an Action star and while he does get the film’s signature bad ass moment (“Always bet on black!”), he just doesn’t get enough time to showcase his martial arts skills. He gets isolated action scenes which are quite impressive, but those moments feel like they are few and far between.

This is even more bewildering when taking into account that Passenger 57 only runs about 80 minutes, and really seems over before you know it. Not needing a lot of that time to establish himself as the movie’s most memorable character is Bruce Payne’s Bond Villain-like Charles Rane. Completely over the top from beginning to end, Payne just goes with the concept at going 120 mph and never let’s up.

It’s just too bad these two aren’t in a better movie. The biggest mistake of the film is that at about the halfway point in the movie, the plane is able to land and Snipes gets off the aircraft, letting out all the tension that the film had been able to build at that point. Then in John McClane style, Cutter has to deal with an entire Sherriff’s office and other bureaucrats that constantly try to undermine his attempts to try to save the plane and capture Rane. Now obviously, I’m not totally in opposition to ripping off concepts from Die Hard, but why would they take the series’ least appealing facet, “the unbelievably hardheaded cops”, and then run with that? Making things even worse, film makers make the cops completely unlikable by making them local yokels, who seem to be racist on top of everything else.

I’d like to be able to go on from here, but really there’s not much more to say about Passenger 57, unless you were going to mention the movie’s cliché filled, mediocre script, and the movie’s outdated Arsenio Hall jokes. The film is definitely the “bottom of the barrel” when it comes to the Die Hard subgenre, and even the coolness of Snipes can’t really save the movie from its inept direction. Fortunately, those actually looking for another Die Hard option, do have an alternative.

Executive Decision Starring Kurt Russell, Steven Seagal, John Leguizamo, Halle Berry, and David Suchet. Directed by Stuart Baird

On the other end of the spectrum is Executive Decision, a film that takes the Die Hard concept, but then plays with the formula to make it its own by mixing in a Tom Clancy-esque feel and a terrific twist half way through the movie. Packed with surprises and suspense, the film is a satisfying experience all on its own, even if its ending leaves a little to be desired. As the directorial debut of Stuart Baird, the editor of such films as Superman and Lethal Weapon, the movie may not have the action quotient of many of its contemporaries, but still ends up a strong entry into this subgenre.

What I love about this film is that while conceptually it’s very much like Passenger 57, the film does what it can to fully develop its characters and play with its audiences’ expectations. For instance, while the film’s villain does have a dastardly plan in store for the United States, he’s not a raving maniac. David Suchet plays Nagi Hassan, a terrorist that has smuggled a gas that will apparently wipe out half of the Eastern seaboard if the plane he has hijacked reaches Washington D.C. Suchet give Hassan a soft-spoken quality and a nobility that you rarely see in this type of heavy. Without question he is a zealot, but he isn’t someone that you necessarily out and out hate, keeping him from becoming just a two dimensional bad guy.

The only way to stop the terrorists is a risky plan in which a commando team is snuck onboard the airborne plane, using a stealth fighter. Once aboard the plane, they must defuse the terrorists’ weapon, and take back control of the aircraft. What really makes me like this film is that while this could have been a standard action plot, the film doesn’t just rest on these laurels. Now I’m going to have to go into spoilerish territory, so if you haven’t seen the film or even its trailer you may want to stop here.

The Navy Seal team that leads the assault on the plane is lead by a super bad ass colonel by the name of Austin Travis. Steven Seagal IS Austin Travis, and early on in the movie it is established that he and his Seal team are the real deal, as they take down a house full of European gangsters like nobody’s business. Now just when you think that Seagal’s Travis will probably save the day just like Casey Ryback in Under Siege, at the 45 minute mark of the film he gets sucked out of the plane and apparently dies a horrible death.

Taking this Action movie heavy hitter out early takes you completely off guard, leaving only a few members of Travis’ Seal team and CIA analyst David Grant, played by Kurt Russell. This isn’t Jack Burton/Snake Plissken Action hero Kurt Russell either, this is brainy/everyman/Breakdown Kurt Russell. To his credit though, Russell is still able to carry this movie, as the suspense created by Grant’s inexperience is pretty terrific and adds a layer to this story that most Die Hard clones have never even attempted.

Baird also doesn’t rely on just action scenes, as he weaves in other tight sequences of the team trying to disarm the bomb while the remaining members contemplate trying to take over the plane. Baird’s background as an editor really comes in handy in this instance, as the film ratchets up the tension as far as it can go, without just throwing in kicks and punches to move the film along. While the movie’s final sequence comes off a bit silly and can’t really hold you in the same way the rest of the film does, this is an admirable effort from Baird for his first time in the director’s chair.

Also helping are John Leguizamo and Joe Morton, who both get good supporting roles as Navy Seals. Morton is as solid as ever, and Leguizamo shows a restraint that I’ve never really seen from him before. Too bad the film also has some duds in the cast as Halle Berry just phones her role in, and Marla Maples is in this film for virtually no reason. Still, neither is bad enough to really take away from the film’s overall quality, and both are largely forgotten in the overall picture.

Both these films are prime examples of how to (Executive Decision) and how not to (Passenger 57) take the concepts from a successful movie and apply them to your own. While neither of these movies will be remembered in the long run, Executive Decision is a FAR better film and manages to make itself memorable by not just relying on formula, but instead adding innovation to what would otherwise be a retread . Next week, I’m finally going to stop dealing with the Die Hard clones and deal directly with John McClane himself in my lead up to the film I’m most anticipating this summer; Live Free or Die Hard.

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