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Plane Review: Gerard Butler Can’t Elevate His Latest Action Movie, Nor Can Its Generic Villains

Tempting as it is to measure Gerard Butler against other action stars of a certain age, such comparisons rarely flatter him — though, admittedly, to be referred to as “the poor man’s Liam Neeson” or “the poor man’s Bruce Willis is to still be mentioned in their company. It’s not that the Scottish actor hasn’t given strong performances before; he brought an anguished sensuality to the titular role in Joel Schumacher‘s Phantom of the Opera and mined the role of a meathead detective for slimy, sad-sack pathos in Christian Gudegast‘s underrated Den of Thieves. But in recent years, Butler’s been hacking away at a vein of B- and C-movies that could uncharitably be characterized as secondhand schlock, boasting scripts so workmanlike that even his genre contemporaries would pass on them, and sold in advance as fodder for Hollywood’s early January or late August dumping grounds.

Missing the innate gravitas with which Denzel Washington can elevate low-grade pulp like The Equalizer, and lacking, too, the weathered melancholy of a late-career Neeson, there’s an argument that Butler is right where he belongs, riding along for sub-Crimson Tide submarine stand-offs (Hunter Killer), sub-Emmerich disaster pics (Geostorm), and sub-Taken shoot-em-ups (the Fallen series), though a whiff of wasted opportunity pervades the bulk of these exceedingly basic and bleary-eyed exercises. Butler’s latest low-flying vehicle, titled Plane, is as appealingly direct in its execution as its title, even if the film also solidifies Butler’s position as the action genre’s resident clean-up guy, unfussily carrying all manner of mid- and low-range hokum atop his famously sturdy shoulders.

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Gerard Butler in Plane/Lionsgate

Initially presenting itself as a tightly contained thriller at 30,000 feet, akin to Neeson actioner Non-Stop, Plane opens as a safety checker at the fictional Trailblazer Airlines, eager to save costs on fuel, encourages Butler’s Capt. Brodie Torrance to steer his New Year’s Eve red-eye flight through a storm rather than around it. A former Royal Air Force pilot who’s been stuck flying long-haul for commercial airliners since phone footage of him putting a belligerent passenger in a chokehold went viral, Torrance agrees to the dangerous flight path. “We have to punch through it,” he gruffly instructs his soft-spoken co-pilot Dele (Yoson An). Of course, this plan of attack doesn’t work out as expected and a lightning strike knocks out the plane’s power, requiring an emergency landing that Torrance is just the right man to pull off, naturally, despite a few casualties on the way down.

Director Jean-François Richet (Mesrine) has been too influenced by the shaky-cam school of action filmmaking but he still manages to wring a solid amount of tension out of this sequence, which culminates in Torrance spotting a patch of land in the stormy ocean and locating a conveniently wide dirt road there to use as a makeshift landing strip. As he and Dele soon deduce, however, they’ve set the plane down on an island in the Philippines run by armed separatists. With no way to call for help, and only a few in-flight refreshments to count on for supplies, Torrance resolves to help everyone get home by infiltrating the separatists’ camp and using their landlines to reach the outside world.

Meanwhile, back at Trailblazer headquarters, owner Terry Hampton (Paul Ben-Victor) enlists blunt-talking crisis-management consultant David Scarsdale (Tony Goldwyn) to advise on rescuing Torrance and his passengers. Curiously, in an era of record-low public faith in airlines, whose penny-pinching practices and outdated software have resulted in disastrous flight disruptions and two deadly crashes in recent years, Plane side-steps any real condemnation of corporate aviation and its destructive avarice. At Scarsdale’s instruction, a crew of mercenaries with high-powered sniper rifles and $500,000 in cash (in case a ransom is required) prepares to head for the island, adding yet another set of players and plenty more ammunition to the overcrowded script by Charles Cumming and J. P. Davis.

Plane movie
Gerard Butler and Mike Colter in Plane/Lionsgate

Further stoking unrest amongst the plane crash survivors is the presence of Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter of Netflix’s Luke Cage), who was being extradited to Toronto on a 15-year-old murder charge; still handcuffed while affixing Torrance with a steely glare, Gaspare cuts an intimidating figure, though Colter plays him with a certain bemused quality that suggests the circumstances of his confinement are more complicated than they first appear. Partnering up despite some lingering distrust between them, Torrance and Gaspare set out through the jungle in search of a way off the island — ideally one that keeps them as far away as possible from local despot Junmar (a compelling, villainous Evan Dane Taylor).

Despite all this setup, the actual thrills supplied by Plane are scant and straightforward. The film’s best fight sequence comes relatively early, in the form of a single-take brawl where Richet’s camera tumbles around with Torrance and his assailant, keeping us bracingly close to their brutal, protracted wrestling match. The heart-in-mouth immediacy of that sequence is never rivaled by the obligatory mixture of shootouts, skirmishes, and near-escapes that follow, though there’s an easy satisfaction to seeing an action programmer like this hit its beats across an agreeably compact 107 minutes.

Also, Colter counterbalances all his brawny physicality with a grimly utilitarian sense of humor; moments of Gaspare skulking around corners with a sledgehammer, at least at my screening, drew bigger cheers than Butler’s vein-popping cockpit performance. The lack of a macho star showdown between these two actors — a seemingly obvious destination for the story, yet one it keeps frustratingly avoiding — feels like as much of a cheat as how little of this film actually takes place on a plane.

It should be said that Plane offers nothing by way of social commentary, and its Philippines-set action reduces the local militia members to hordes of faceless, bloodthirsty criminals in a way that struck me as not just casually xenophobic (if not quite to the degree of Butler’s London Has Fallen, a totally irredeemable piece of jingoistic garbage) but also dramatically slipshod. The writers emphasize Torrance’s efficacy as an aviator and a family man. “You’re one hell of a pilot, Captain,” declares one passenger, not long after Torrance’s daughter (Haleigh Hekking) drops in via video message from idyllic Hawaii to remind everyone that he’s also a great father. Plane‘s disinterest in providing any such characterization to its adversaries deprives the film of whatever island intrigue it might’ve mustered while reflecting the narrative limits of such perfunctory, low-rent entertainment.

Plane is far from Butler’s worst effort, but it’s still a bumpy ride that’s running largely on autopilot — a calculated throwback to vintage ’80s and ’90s action programmers that mostly makes you miss their cheesy, over-the-top abandon.

Grade: C+

Plane is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of Lionsgate.

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