Air Force One (1997): Breakdown by Kooshmeister
Terrorists looking to get their boss released from a Russian prison take over Air Force One en route from Moscow to the United States, and only the President himself can defeat them.
This being a Wolfgang Petersen movie, suspense is the name of the game. Much of the story is set aboard the titular aircraft, and Petersen uses the enclosed space to superb effect in both action sequences (your standard-issue shootouts and fistfights). Much of the story is President Marshall sneaking around taking out terrorists in brief but exciting hand-to-hand engagements as he tries to rescue the hostages, and in these instances the film is nothing short of perfection. The long stretches of eerie silence without dialog followed by sudden and brutal action scenes make the film a treat.
It’s when Petersen struggles to break up the perceived monotony of this formula that the film goes slightly awry. It never becomes outright bad, mind you, but in its more over-the-top scenes it feels like a different movie. Excuse after excuse is found to have lots of stuff go kaboom to dazzle the audience without destroying Air Force One itself.
First when Marshall is caught by a lone terrorist down in the baggage deck, he gets rid of the guy by (in a convoluted manner involving a satellite phone in his pocket) ordering an F-15 to fire on Air Force One. The countermeasures are deployed, with explosive results, and the shockwave knocks the guy holding Marshall prisoner off his feet, allowing the President to attack him and break his neck. Considering Marshall already overpowered and beat up another armed terrorist with his bare hands, what was stopping him from repeating his earlier success with this guy?
And again when the escaping hostages parachute to freedom while Air Force One is refueling in midair, one stupid terrorist, named Sergei, having apparently never heard of explosive decompression, opens the door to the tail cone by jamming an oxygen tank in the handle and shooting it. The resulting decompression not only sucks half the people out (most were thankfully wearing their parachutes already) but sets in motion a chain of events that results in the fuel tanker plane exploding in a big fireball.
Are these scenes enjoyable? Yes. Are they also ridiculously over the top? Yes. It doesn’t ruin the movie but both instances are bound to make one smack their forehead at the contrived nature of the sequences. But, hey, it’s an action movie and it can’t all be shootouts and fistfighting, and by God, Wolfgang was determined to do some fun stuff with the President’s jumbo jet. Besides, proving that airliners doing goofy stunts isn’t always groan-inducing, Air Force One going down in the Caspian Sea at the end with the final bad guy aboard is a real treat, even if the 1990’s CGI effects are a bit bad.
One interesting aspect of the film is that it has no less than three different endings. I don’t mean that there are alternate endings or anything; the movie simply has numerous points where it could’ve stopped but keeps going anyway, dragging out the action. Oh, look, Harrison killed the last terrorist and the bad general got shot escaping from prison. End of movie, right? Nope, here come a bunch of MiG’s from an airbase loyal to the villains to attack Air Force One! Cue dogfight! Yay, the F-15’s drove off the bad guys, now can it be over? Nope. ‘Cause now Air Force One is losing fuel and a daring midair rescue to get the survivors off must be attempted. And even that can’t be completed until the President has one more final fight scene, this time with the aforementioned last remaining bad guy. Only then, with the crashing of Air Force One and the rescue of the President, does the movie finally end.
Not that I mind at all. Focusing on the tribulations of the characters even after the main villains have been dispatched is a fairly realistic approach and gives the film an epic feel. It helps that the dogfight and midair rescue scenes are quite gripping, and the President pounding on the last bad guy is fun, too, especially since this one in particular was the cause of the whole thing.
[THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THEIR BADASSITUDE]
Harrison Ford is President James Marshall
Harrison Ford turns in his usual intense, dynamite performance, giving everything to a character who is essentially a cypher. Despite possessing something of a backstory and some character quirks he’s your basic idealized US president; strong sense of right and wrong, loving family main, and military training which makes him prepared to deal with the situation despite taking on enemies half his age. Despite this, the movie is story-driven, what Dean Koontz would call “story for the sake of story.” The movie isn’t about Marshall, it’s about the situation he is in, one he unintentionally helped create (although it was the right thing to do). What kind of person Marshall is isn’t what is important, but how he reacts to the crisis.
And he does so by stalking and killing his enemies, not even surrendering even when the terrorists’ leader, Ivan, threatens to shoot Melanie the White House press secretary. Only when his own wife and daughter are threatened does Marshall finally relent and do as the villains want. Some might argue that compromising his morals to save his wife and daughter, but not to save Melanie, seems a bit hypocritical. But, looking at it from Marshall’s point of view, your family is typically more important to you emotionally than an employee or co-worker, so it’s easier to believe Marshall could write off Melanie and live with it, but not his wife and daughter.
To Marshall’s credit in both instances, he visibly flinches when Melanie is shot, and, in the latter instance, as soon as his family aren’t at gunpoint anymore Marshall goes Rambo on the villains, and makes them wish they’d never even heard of Air Force One, and stops the events he accidentally set in motion from developing out of control (one phone call and General Radek is shot before he can even make it out of prison). Thus, although Marshall compromise his morals, he is quick to correct his error. One could even argue he planned the entire thing this way.
Glenn Close is Vice President Kathryn Bennett
With Air Force One taken while Marshall was aboard, Vice President Bennett is in charge of the White House. Sort of. There’s a subplot involving the defense secretary, Walter Dean, insisting he is actually in charge. And I’m going to say I don’t like Bennett. She’s kind of a wuss. All of her ideas to deal with the situation involve releasing Radek from prison, which would be giving the terrorists what they want. Dean tells her bluntly what a lousy idea this is, and, prior to having having threatened, so does Marshall.
When Marshall caves and is made to call the Russian president to secure Radek’s release, Dean freaks and tells Bennett that Marshall made the decision not as a president but as a husband and father, and gets a majority of the cabinet to sign a document attesting to Marshall’s inability to properly lead, so that Bennett can then become president and stop Radek’s release. She refuses. Why? We aren’t told.
Everyone tells her, over and over, that, if set free, General Radek will go back to murdering millions and take over all of central Asia. Whether he actually has the ability to do that second part is beside the point; Radek is an evil, genocidal wacko, and letting him out of the pokey is a bad idea. The movie wants us to see Bennett as unswervingly loyal to Marshall, and Dean as a conniving weasel, but I just don’t. I have to agree with him, and severely fault Bennett for her blind loyalty which could have wound up starting World War III if Marshall had been played by anyone but Harrison Ford.
Gary Oldman is Ivan Korshunov
Although Radek is nominally the movie’s primary threat, it’s his right-hand man Ivan here that leads the Kazakhstan cheerleader brigade, a.k.a. the terrorists loyal to the evil general. Boy, does this guy have problems. For starters, he has exactly two volume levels; barely speaking above a whisper, and screaming his head off. Aside from the usual business of shooting innocent hostages without provocation, his ideal vision of Russia under Radek is pretty chilling, and he even gets a good monologue about how he is able to basically somehow turn off his own morality for the sake of the mission.
He says, proudly, he’d turn his back on God Himself if it meant restoring Russia to the way it was before it was “infected” by freedom. But Ivan isn’t without his positive traits; he is dedicated to Radek to the point of religious fanaticism, showing even villains can be fiercely loyal, and, shockingly, he cares about his men. When he finds Marshall’s first victim, his old war buddy Krasin, dead, you can literally see the hate, anger and sorrow welling in Ivan (although like a good manly Russian, he doesn’t cry). This comes to a head when he finally captures the President, after Marshall has killed a ton of his other guys. Marshall suffers a rather severe beating at Ivan’s hands for killing his guys.
It’s always refreshing to see a villain that sees his underlings as friends rather than as bullet-catchers. It doesn’t make Ivan any less of a murderous douchebag, though. Just a fascinating one.
Jürgen Prochnow as General Ivan Radek
Despite only appearing in a few brief scenes and spending most of the movie in a Russian jail, this guy looms over the film like a specter of death. Most of his evilness is informed attributes; despite everyone talking about him as though he ate kittens and used babies for target practice, the sole evil thing he does onscreen is smirk smugly. However, that one smirk says it all. He really is everything they say he is – one evil dude, and considering the kind of unswerving loyalty he inspires in his men, one has to assume he is a pretty good general. He also for some reason has the exact same first name as his second in command (although the end credits erroneously call him “Alexander Radek”). It’s not inconceivable, after all; “Ivan” is a common first name in that part of the world, but it’s still somewhat distracting.
Xander Berkeley as Agent Gibbs
For all the evilness and fanaticism amonst the villains, none of it would’ve been possible without this guy. Exactly what his deal is, I’m unsure. Is he a real Secret Service agent who was persuaded to turn traitor? If so, how? Is he a Russian undercover spy, posing as an American, who infiltrated the Secret Service? Again, how? The novelization by Max Alan Collins suggests it is the former, but the movie doesn’t bother one way or the other. He’s just a plot device to let the terrorists take over the plane, and to be around threatening to turn bad at any moment, like a cinematic human time bomb. When he finally does, during the climax, his turn gives Marshall one last villain to fight and overcome and it’s a satisfying fight, and Gibbs does at least come to an amusing end, but nonetheless a little more backstory on this guy would’ve helped.
[THE BODY COUNT: 57, by rough estimate]
Tons of people die in this film, mostly during the chaotic shootout that occurs during the initial takeover of Air Force One by the terrorists. Our hero President Marshall kills five of the six terrorists (including Ivan) and is matched by the turncoat Agent Gibbs who kills five as well. The terrorists themselves rack up a combined total of eighteen kills while Ivan kills seven of that number.
[MOST SATISFYING DEATH]
This award goes to Ivan Korshunov, no big surprise. A pretty lackluster tussle with Marshall at the back of the plane ends in a kickass demise for our bad guy. Ivan is wearing a parachute (he’d been intending to jump out the back) and Marshall wraps a strap from a torn cargo netting around his throat before delivering the most quoted line of dialogue from the film:
Marshall: Get off my plane!
He then yanks Ivan’s ripcord, and the villain is pulled backwards out of the open tail cone, getting his neck rather violently snapped in the process. The strap pulls loose and we get to watch Ivan’s corpse serenely parachute down to earth, probably to land in some poor bastard’s chimney or something.
[Best Fight Scene]
As described above, Marshall’s showdown with Ivan isn’t much to write home about despite the awesome finishing move. It is the other fights Marshall has with the less important villains that are really a lot of fun. It’s difficult to choose a favorite. I’m rather partial to the fight over the strap Marshall has with Gibbs at the end, but it’s a bit too brief and all Marshall does is suckerpunch the guy and then get winched to safety, allowing Gibbs to go down with the ship–er, plane.
The truly epic fight though is the one the President has with the very first of the terrorists, Krasin. First Marshall lures the guy in by turning up the volume on the TV. Heading to investigate the sudden sounds of American football, Krasin is surprised by Marshall who had been hiding behind a chair. It’s a fairly realistic fight; the two men throw one another around, smashing each other into every available surface, wrestling for possession of the terrorist’s gun, and Krasin even bodyslams the President before Marshall finally wins by grabbing a metal stool and smashing Krasin upside the head with it.
And even that only briefly stuns Krasin. The guy gets up a minute later and Marshall has to put a few rounds of machine gun fire into him to finally put him down permanently. That’s one tough Russkie.
[DUDESWEAT AND MACHISMO]
Nothing here outside of a few manly hugs.
[EXPLOITATION AND MISOGYNY]
The female hostage Ivan executes, Melanie, gets a somewhat more drawn-out death than the male one who went before her. I’m unsure if this really counts. Ivan’s taunting of Vice President Bennett over the phone contains some sexist crap from him, as well, but really though, the movie is pretty free of any exploitation of women, being a big summer blockbuster intended for family viewing.
[EPIC MOMENT AND BEST ONE-LINER]
Call me an idealist and a sucker for touchy-feely moments, but for me it is when the hostages are parachuting to freedom. Up until it gets totally ruined by Sergei being a total numbskull, anyway. The sequence makes the best use of Jerry Goldsmith’s awesome, patriotic score, it’s great seeing the innocent redshirts escaping to (relative) safety, and Sergei’s hilariously helpless, stupefied expression as he watches through the window, unable to stop them, is the icing on the cake. This combination of elements serve to make it the emotional high point of the film, which means it’s that much more horrific when Sergei tries his impromptu lockpick. Oh well. At least most of the people already had their chutes on.
As for the line…
“Get off my plane!”
Come one, you knew that was gonna be my choice. It’s just that good.
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
Atrocity and terror are not political weapons. And to those who would use them… your day is over. Also, don’t screw with President Harrison Ford!