How often has Denzel prevented potential disasters just by turning up and giving an effortless performance? John Q,Book of Eli, Unstoppable. It’s testament to the two-time Academy Award winner that his sheer presence alone can flip a movie on its head and elevate it above average.
Flight is different because it marks the return to live action for director Robert Zemeckis after years of messing about with dead-eyed mo-cap animated movies, and as if to over-compensate for those soulless exercises, this is a satisfying emotional drama.
Veteran pilot, Whip Whitaker (Washington), has a drug habit and a temporary hotel-based home. His crew seem used to his dishevelled ways, all except a suspicious co-pilot, and the passengers impressed by his laid back manner and skills at manoeuvring through some horrific turbulence. A routine flight takes a literal turn for the worse when the plane spectacularly malfunctions, forcing Whip into a series of heroic manoeuvres to save as many lives as possible. Hero worship soon makes way for accusatory finger pointing as the flight crash investigation team begin to pull apart Whip along with the destroyed fuselage.
The ensemble may be strong – Don Cheadle gives good pressed-shirt lawyer, Bruce Greenwood is great as the ambiguously motivated old friend, and John Goodman performs Argo-like scene stealing antics – but this film is memorable for the superb depiction of alcoholism by Washington. It’s not entirely likeable, but thankfully never in danger of going down the sentimental “one-week chip” road to recovery that blights unrealistic addiction movies. His Whip is a schizophrenic, susceptible to the booze, and Washington is excellent when subverting his obvious power in a fallible creation.
His relationship with Kelly Reilly’s similarly addicted wash-out may be a little too Pay It Forward to ring true, but it works to give the film a much needed heart, which Denzel’s performance on its own might not have been able to do. Reilly is understated and fantastic as another flawed personality, but a much more likeable and redemptive one on which the audience can project their empathy – an allegiance Washington’s actions will not allow.
Zemickis’s direction is impressive, if a little rusty in terms of trimming excess baggage, like a misjudged bedside forgiveness sequence should have been jettisoned. It makes you regret the time he’s spent struggling to master the fake veneer of films such as The Polar Express, when he can coax superb performances out of the real thing. Orchestrating action is also an underused skill of his, and the tension riddled flight sequences are suitably white knuckle in a way that will make you consider a coach trip this summer.
Flight is a wonderful piece of entirely satisfying entertainment, backed up by some excellent award worthy performances, and whilst it may not soar to memorable heights, it’s a steady journey that safely sticks the landing.
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