If you possess even the slightest fear of flying, by all means avoid getting onboard “Flight.” It will scare the bejesus out of you. Or at least it will during its nail-biting first half hour, as director Robert Zemeckis puts you through the ringer in staging an airliner crash that couldn’t feel any more real if you were actually strapped into the plane. Then it all quickly falls apart, the movie, that is. The jet, amazingly, remains pretty much intact thanks to the supernatural skills of an inebriated pilot who finds the only-in-Hollywood wherewithal to bring all but six of his 101 passengers back to earth alive.
Yes, he’s the anti-Sully Sullenberger, a hero with an insatiable hankering for hooch, hos and cocaine. Who better to portray this master of malfeasance than Denzel Washington in full “Training Day” mode? He plays the heck out of it, too. But unlike his alliterative character, veteran jet jockey Whip Whitacker, he can’t keep “Flight” from nose-diving straight into the ground. Part of it is due to mechanical error on the part of a perfunctory script by John Gatins that comes frontloaded with that spectacular crash sequence, then spends the rest of the movie woefully trying to top it with an all-too-familiar depiction of an addict struggling to get straight.
The suspense, if there is any, lies is in whether or not Whip will find the courage to come clean with the NTSB and its lead investigator, played by fellow Oscar-winner Melissa Leo. But to get to that pivotal moment of truth, expect to spend more than an hour enduring repetitive scenes of Whip getting off and on the wagon, aided and inspired by a recovering drug addict, who, lucky for him, has emerged from her ordeal looking hot and heroin chic. This is what I like to call “The Days of Wine and Roses” portion of our show, as Washington and Jessica Chastain look-alike Kelly Reilly (Mrs. Watson in the “Sherlock Holmes” movies) slowly discover that love and alcohol don’t mix. Making matters worse, Whip has daddy issues, one of many demons that arise while hiding out from the media hoards on his late pappy’s spread in rural Georgia. Add to that the heat he’s getting from the feds and the pilots union – both of whom are keenly aware that his blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit at the time of the crash – it’s little wonder he keeps returning to his 100-proof companion to escape
It’s all glossily presented by Zemeckis, who takes a respite from his emulsion in motion-capture cartoons (“The Polar Express,” “A Christmas Carol”) to make his first live-action flick since “Cast Away” in 2000. But it too often lacks energy, or, worse, a reason to care. As good as Washington is in the role, Whip is rarely likable, and his dilemma extremely hard to empathize with. About all the film accomplishes is instilling a fear that the next time you fly, your pilot might be an irresponsible lush like Whip. The rest of it, except for that breathtaking crash sequence, provides scant payoff, unless you count the ridiculously implausible final “courtroom” scene that attempts to instantly rehabilitate a guy we’ve long determined to be a selfish jerk.
Page 2 of 2 - Sorry, not buying it. I was, however, sold on a trio of supporting roles, brought vividly to life by Don Cheadle as a cocky, union-appointed lawyer, John Goodman as a jovial drug dealer and Bruce Greenwood as a concerned union rep. They are the wind beneath “Flight’s” wings. But as hard as they and Washington strain to generate thrust, they can’t lift this air bust beyond cruising altitude.
FLIGHT (R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence. Cast includes Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, John Goodman and Bruce Greenwood. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. 2.5 stars out of 4.