“Christ, you think they’d put an airline bomber on a bus or a train.” This wonderful piece of dialogue and more as we look back at Passenger 57 on its 25th anniversary.
“Charles Ranes, known internationally as the Rane of Terror.” Remorseless, unashamed punning like this goes straight to my heart. Speaking of hearts, mine unabashedly beats for this ridiculous movie. This is Wesley Snipes in the middle of his 90s run. 1992 saw him also star in White Men Can’t Jump. Legit, all-time classic. 1989 saw him break out in Major League as Willie Mays Hayes and go on to New Jack City. And then in Passenger 57 he gets a chance to showcase some of his martial arts background. It also co-stars Elizabeth Hurley, Tom Sizemore and Bruce Greenwood (who you might have seen as Gerald in 2017’s Gerald’s Game). It was written by Dan Gordon and David Loughery whose writing credits include Dreamscape, The Three Musketeers (the Disney version), Surf Ninjas, Wyatt Earp, and The Hurricane. Director Kevin Hooks put together a great cast and crew and delivered an impossibly fun movie. It flies by at eighty-four minutes, which includes at least four minutes of intro and credits.
If that isn’t enough to get you excited, let me give you four reasons to take a look back at this movie.
Stanley Clarke composed the score for Passenger 57. Okay, let me break down that name for you. Clarke is the bassist in an on again, off again jazz fusion band called Return To Forever. Chick Corea, the founding member of that band, played with Miles Davis’ band in the 60s. In 1979 Clarke played in a short-lived band called The New Barbarians, whose other members included Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards, of Rolling Stones fame.
He’s awesome. He’s also done scores for other movies and shows, to include Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Which, not for nothing, also featured the work of Mark Mothersbaugh and Cliff Martinez. Okay, so, do you feel the pedigree I’m laying out here? Clarke is a big deal.
All of that is to help you understand my sincerity when I say: The score for Passenger 57 is straight up baby-making music. It funks, rocks, AND makes you say UGH. The title sequence for this movie is two minutes and forty-nine seconds long. The first thirty seconds features images you might see through an x-ray scanner. Wallets, keys, money clips. That sort of thing. And then it gets to Charles Rane’s passport. The remainder of the time is spent slowly zooming into the eyes of our villain.
All through this, Stanley Clarke’s theme is playing. It’s got a Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, late 80s action movie vibe to it with some legit funk laid over top of it. It’s amazing. I believe with every fiber of my being that this is why the title sequence is two minutes and forty-nine seconds long.
Martial Arts Love
Passenger 57 isn’t The Raid. Very little is though. What I’m trying to distinguish here is that there are groundbreaking action sequences in some martial arts movies while in others they just embrace the pure joy of having a competent martial artist in the lead. Hooks doesn’t have to cut around anything that Snipes does. Wesley Snipes is a great martial artist. And a great performer. He’s got a background in martial arts, having studied Shotokan karate, capoeira, jujitsu, and others. He also made his way into New York’s High School for the Performing Arts.
Kevin Hooks uses that to give us some fun sequences of pure late 80s action, martial arts with Snipes. It’s a lot of side-kicking, chopping and punching combo moves on villains all too ready to take hit after successive hit. We even see some moves that he’ll later use as the vampire-hunter badass, Blade. I’d estimate Passenger 57 and Snipes’ charismatic, action performance is what opened up his career to more action movies.
While this isn’t a straight martial arts movies, it’s got several essential beats. The introduction to his haunted past is the best of them. Snipes plays John Cutter, a cop. That is, he was, until his wife died during his failed attempt to stop a convenience store robbery. We get a full-on, shirtless work-out scene of kicking and punching as he relives that horrible day. The best part about this is the opening of the scene. We see him kneeling in front of a shrine. It’s a must-have in a martial arts movie. There’s always a kneeling before a shrine scene. Now, this one isn’t quite Dolph Lundgren, naked in a sewer as the Punisher good. But, it’s up there.
A Scary Villain
Bruce Payne plays Charles Rane, the villain. Rane is a legitimately terrifying character. The title sequence opens into a surgical center. We see Rane in a chair, prepared to undergo facial reconstruction. As the doctor steps in to direct the anesthesia, Rane tells him not to bother. “There will be no pain,” he says. No pain! Look, I know it sounds a bit corny. And it is! But, he’s not fooling around. When he takes over the plane, he shoves open the door to the cockpit and, gun in hand, asks “Who’s in charge?” The pilot answers “Me.” Bam. Headshot. No delay. He repeats the question. The co-pilot answers “You are.” The co-pilot lives. For the rest of the movie, every scene in the cockpit has a blood-stained, brains encrusted window. Every. Time.
In a particularly off-putting scene, Rane threatens Marti Slayton (Alex Datcher), a kick-ass flight attendant who’s teamed up with Cutter. She’s once again his hostage and Rane decides to threaten her. Most every other moment of the movie, Payne plays Rane as cold and detached. Devoid of human concern. Not here. Rane is invigorated by his dominance over Marti. It’s profoundly uncomfortable. He strokes and caresses his gun in a very suggestive fashion as he talks about his plans for her. Defiant, Marti says he’ll have to kill her first. Good for her. Rane’s reply? “No Marti. I’m going to kill you during.” God damn.
Despite some of the silly action-movie beats, Rane isn’t just described as the “Rane of Terror”. He is allowed to casually show that he is in every way an absolute psychopath. Full credit to Payne for pulling that off, and to the crew for writing and showcasing that performance.
Honest Social Commentary
Passenger 57 has several very honest social commentary beats in this movie. It’s surprising to me. Not so much that Kevin Hooks or Wesley Snipes would push for it. Rather, that it was allowed out of a major studio’s popcorn, action flick. All of it is woven into the film, to where you wouldn’t quite notice if you weren’t interested. For example, there’s a running gag in this movie that the white people on the plane, which is everyone except for the flight attendant, can’t tell the difference between Cutter and Arsenio Hall.
It’s a good gag but predicated on the subconscious racism of all people that don’t look like me look the same. But, the real gag is that we get to see Cutter’s take on being mistaken for Arsenio Hall. He escapes to the plane’s bathroom to avoid the old woman who thinks he’s Arsenio. The terrorists take the plane while he’s in there. And there’s a lovely little line where he says “first all that Arsenio stuff, and now this.” Which I really dig. The constant barrage of all these small impositions of subconscious racism is shown to be as equal a hassle as psychopaths taking over a plane.
The gag even finishes honestly. At the end of the film, in his moment of victory, the old woman leads the cabin in Arsenio’s iconic audience cheer of “woof woof woof”. Even in victory, he still has to deal with that bullshit.
There’s also his engagement with the sheriff in the Lousiana town where the plane seeks an emergency landing in the middle of the movie. Cutter gets clear of the plane as it taxis down the runway and is apprehended by a couple sheriff’s deputies. They immediately assume he’s part of the problem. He repeatedly identifies himself as the airline’s head of security, yet the cops don’t even pick up the phone to call airline headquarters and check out his story.
Rane, noted psychopath and demonstrated murderer, tells the sheriff that Cutter is one of his men who cut and ran. The sheriff is all too ready to turn Dirty Harry on Cutter. Eventually, the FBI show up and tell the sheriff that Cutter is, in fact, the good guy. He comes around to Cutter and even helps him get back on the plane.
At the end of the movie, the sheriff acts like all is forgiven and forgotten. Meanwhile, Cutter literally only says awful things to the sheriff’s face. The sheriff, in classic clueless racist fashion, thinks that it’s just good-natured ribbing. It isn’t. And that’s what feels so honest about that moment. It truly doesn’t matter what Cutter has or has not done. The sheriff is living in his own racist world and is the hero of his own story.
This is really the only portion of the movie that hasn’t become totally outmoded. Airport security is totally different. No one would in a million years advise anyone to follow the instructions of hijackers. Contact with the outside world would be different. Cutter would be able to call his pals at the airline to coordinate his arrival at the airfield. Action movies have evolved significantly since 1992. The beats and styles are different today. Despite that, the movie itself is still immensely fun. It’s fast, never dull, and features some terrific performances and great characters. Give it a look and tell me what you think.
Oh yeah. Whatever else you do, always bet on black.