Flight has without a doubt the best opening scene of any film in Robert Zemeckis‘ career. Granted, that’s due more to the glorious and fully nude form of Nadine Velazquez walking around a motel room while audiences pretend to be watching Denzel Washington than it is to the director’s myriad skills. Eye candy aside though the scene makes a bold and immediate statement that this is not your niece’s typical candy-ass, motion-captured Zemeckis fluff. Instead, this is going to be a return to form for a talented director rediscovering the dramas, moral complexities and adult themes possible with live-action filmmaking.
If only someone had shared the plan with the film’s writer.
Whip Whitaker (Washington) wakes after an all-nighter with a naked stewardess beside him, finishes off a beer and a line of coke, gets dressed and heads to work. He’s an airline pilot, and his morning flight is full and ready for takeoff. A possible mechanical failure causes a loss of control shortly after they leave the tarmac, but Whitaker’s quick thinking leads to an extraordinary maneuver and a controlled crash landing that results in minimum casualties. He’s immediately hailed as a hero, but when a routine investigation threatens to reveal the condition he was in while flying and send him to jail for life he discovers this is one impending crash he may not be able to control.
The NTSB and the pilots’ union find themselves at odds while he struggles to reconnect with his son and ex-wife, but the bulk of the remainder moves between efforts to shield the happy drunk from his well earned negative consequences and Whitaker’s own (possibly) subconscious efforts to sabotage himself even further. If any of that sounds all that interesting then I apologize as it was not my intent.
Flight showcases its two greatest assets (three if you count Velazquez) early on, but the viewer-high they help create soon fades thanks to a dull series of scenes that boil down to games of “will he or won’t he drink that?” The answers become fairly repetitive and the false sense of suspense built up around the incidents grows somewhat insulting by the two hour mark.
Before then though we’re witness to a spectacular plane crash scene that almost rivals the one in Zemeckis’ own Castaway in its intensity and resulting rush of adrenaline. The film’s other early strength is a master class in acting as Washington delivers his finest performance in years as a truly unlikeable man you can’t help but like anyway. He has talent and personality to spare, and it pays off in making this despicable character one we want to see succeed even after he bones, family, friends and strangers alike again and again.
Impressive, but in smaller doses, are supporting turns by recognizable faces like Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood and Kelly Reilly. The three play characters who challenge Whitaker with varying degrees of success while John Goodman joins the fray as someone whose sole purpose is to support him.
Even so, Washington and friends aren’t enough to lift the film’s second and third acts above the belabored and confusing morality play that it becomes. Alcoholism is bad and God is good seem to be the thesis, but neither theme is played with a believable sincerity. We grow numb to the effects Whitaker’s alcoholism has on those around him, and we’re meant to laugh along with Goodman’s comic relief even as he drives while drinking and exacerbates the problems. And while no fewer than four characters extoll God’s virtues and the need for Him in Whitaker’s life their efforts seem to go nowhere… until they do.
Flight opens strong but descends quickly back to Earth on a lukewarm jet stream of false promises, repetitive scenarios and wasted talent. Zemeckis shows that he hasn’t forgotten how to helm an engrossing and engaging live action film when a strong script is there to support him, and hopefully he’ll get to film another one before he crawls back to the low-expectation world of motion-capture animation.
The Upside: Denzel Washington gives a great performance of a very unlikeable man; crash scene is spectacular; Nadine Velazquez’ bottom half is quite lovely
The Downside: Lead character and his actions are often boring and repetitive; faith and alcoholism are both presented with mixed messages; first act is exciting but second and third are mostly lifeless and unsurprising
On the Side: This is Robert Zemeckis’ first R-rated film since 1980’s Used Cars