Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Stars: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Nadine Velazquez, Tamara Tunie
Running time: 144 minutes
Just in case you forgot, Denzel Washington is an incredible actor. One of the best working in Hollywood today, in fact, but everyone should know that already. Why the reminder? Because, for the last three years, the two-time Academy Award winner hasn't exactly pushed his skills to new heights. Though his performances in them have all been solid, Washington's recent slate of hyper-kinetic action flicks, from Tony Scott's remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) to this January's wannabe Tony Scott hit Safe House, perpetuated the idea that he's another Liam Neeson, a respected veteran actor who's simply collecting paychecks in surefire box office draws.
But in Flight, directed by fellow Oscar victor Robert Zemeckis (for 1994's Forrest Gump), Washington abandons all kicks, punches, and chase sequences for muted character drama, and he's brilliant. Given one of the best roles of his career, he goes back to his old, faithful method of conveying emotion: It's all in Washington's eyes, how he compartmentalizes pain, anguish, and fury behind those pupils. A scene can go by without a single of word of dialogue from Washington and, by its end, you know exactly how his character feels. With Flight, he's asked to basically carry the entire picture on his able-bodied shoulders, and, in the end, that's precisely what he ends up doing, although not in the intended way. After a remarkable first act, Flight slowly descends into a pool of predictable melodrama surrounded by awkward moments of levity. Fortunately, Washington never gets bogged down with the script's missteps.
Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an experienced, very trusted airline captain who has a drinking problem. The night before a trip from Orlando to Atlanta, Whip partakes in excessive amounts of booze and some recreational cocaine with a sexy stewardess fuck-buddy, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), and on the Atlanta flight, he dumps a couple airplane bottles of vodka into his orange juice. But then, due to aircraft malfunctions, the plane begins crashing downward, on a collision course that'd surely kill all 102 passengers if not for Whip's impeccable flyboy skills. Beginning at 30,000 feet, Whip inverts the plane in order to slow down its trajectory and allow for him to (somewhat) safely land it. In the end, only six people die.
As staged by Zemeckis, who knows a thing or two about shooting thrilling plane crashes (see: Cast Away), Flight's disaster set-piece is a staggering exhibition of high-powered filmmaking. Executed with such suffocating intensity, the scene helplessly straps the viewer into one of the plane's seats and transfers the fear and desperation that come along with seeing flight attendants get knocked unconscious, their bodies obeying the laws of gravity and lifting upward once the plane inverts. And pushing in on close-ups of Washington's zoned-in expression and his cockpit sidekick's (Brian Geraghty) shell-shocked look of terror, Zemeckis gives the sight of the rapidly approaching ground an immediacy that's immensely palpable.
Once the nightmare is over, though, Flight slowly begins an all-new descent, one that gradually approaches the preachiness of an after-school special. Before long, it's discovered that Whip had alcohol in his system at the time of the crash, which causes a representative for the pilot's union (Bruce Greenwood) to bring in an out-of-state attorney (Don Cheadle) to help Whip win an impending court case that could put him in jail for life on charges of criminal negligence.
From there, Flight becomes a compendium of individually excellent moments of powerhouse acting from Washington in scenes that, in the hands of a weaker thespian, would border on the laughable. Most notably, a night spent inside a hotel room in which the complimentary bottles of liquor have been removed; conveniently, the adjoining room's connective door is unlocked, prompting Whip to enter and deliberate whether or not to raid the fridge's adult beverage options.
The aftermath of Whip's hotel bender leads to another of Flight's problems. Whenever the film hones in on Washington's tormented Whip, it's dark, dramatic, and profound, particularly when he's paired with the charming British actress Kelly Reilly's character, the sweet, reforming heroin addict Nicole. More intimate exchanges between Washington and the strong Reilly would have benefited Flight much more than unnecessary, nearly juvenile comic relief bits from the great John Goodman, who gamely injects likability into Whip's close pal Harling Mays, who's otherwise a lazy, goofball caricature of a white drug dealer who's listened to too many Bob Marley songs.
Everything culminates into a familiar courtroom finale, where the NTSB finally gets to put the heat on Whip and the tension mounts to a question of whether he'll be unjustly exonerated or find redemption in prison. The outcome is easily foreseen, and in its final moments Flight embraces patness and reaches the ultimate in Hollywood sappy endings. Just as he does everywhere else in the film, though, Washington masterfully delivers, rendering cheeseball scenes effective and helping Zemeckis to achieve the emotional uppercuts he so obviously desires and forcefully obtains. Thanks to its lead actor's dynamic performance, Flight breaks down one's better judgment, makes you overlook its numerous flaws, and leaves you cheering for Whip. For that, Washington deserves endless praise.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)