Flying high – Flight review

Flight – Starring Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, and Don Cheadle. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Rated MA. By Simon Miraudo.

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Denzel Washington and Robert Zemeckis jettison their bad habits like so much frozen human waste from the back of a soaring airliner with their collaboration Flight. As one of Hollywood’s most reliable leading men, Washington had settled into an outrageous groove that continually entertained yet almost never surprised. (Remember when his villainous turn in Training Day was actually shocking? Me neither.) Zemeckis, meanwhile, spent much of the last decade valiantly struggling to breathe life into the dead-eyed protagonists of his CGI movies; a technological innovation that repulsed practically everyone. Despite what the title implies, Flight grounds both men and, as a result, provides them with their best material in an age.

Yet this simple, human redemption tale is no cookie-cutter Hollywood tear-jerker (well, not entirely, anyway). John Gatins’ script is, for the genre, uncharacteristically odd and misshapen. Alcohol is depicted as a cursed blight upon mankind, while cocaine comes across as, to quote Rick James, “a hell of a drug.” Such schizophrenia is rarely seen in anti-drug parables. The message winds up a little muddled as a result: Whenever our hero takes a bump of blow, Joe Cocker’s ‘Feelin’ Alright’ starts to play. It’s a wicked joke, albeit one that doesn’t quite gel with the overlying message. This strangeness sometimes works against the film’s favour, but there’s enough here to make it a most unusual – and frequently rewarding – viewing experience.

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The picture opens with hungover pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington) waking up in a hotel room beside a buck-naked hostess (Nadine Velazquez), surrounded by the remnants of their wild night. With only a couple hours until they’ve got to get back to work, Whip snorts a line of coke (“Feelin’ alright…”) and is, by his standards, ready to fly a commercial jet from Orlando to Atlanta. He levels off the cocaine with a bottle of vodka mid-air, and catches some shut-eye, leaving his nervous co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) to carry the load. A sudden, steep dive jolts him awake, and he quickly takes charge to keep the giant death trap from colliding too quickly with the ground. Whip ingeniously – and miraculously – turns the plane upside down, slowing it down some before bringing it to a relatively safe landing by a lone church in a field. Only six lives are lost, while nearly a hundred are spared, and Whip is heralded as a hero accordingly. But when his blood work returns from the lab littered with incriminating evidence, he is confronted with a life-long prison sentence for negligence, as well as the prospect of God having interfered on that fateful day to teach him a lesson.

The crash sequence is harrowing cinema; a fairly small-scale visual effects exercise for Zemeckis, though his finest achievement since, well, the crash sequence from Cast Away. What comes next fails to live up to that astounding set piece. At least it gives Washington a lot of wiggle room to exorcise Whip’s demons in an untraditional, albeit dull, locale. After an early confrontation with Don Cheadle‘s legal advisor, Whip absconds to an isolated, rural estate, where he gets boozy, considers reforming, gets boozy again, et cetera. He’s eventually joined by fellow addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), but their romantic subplot doesn’t quite land. A late quarrel with his heretofore unseen ex-wife and son does, however, pack quite a punch.

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Washington and company are also aided by the omnipresent John Goodman, as Whip’s pony-tailed drug dealer, Bruce Greenwood, as a supportive friend, and Tamarie Tunie, as a surviving flight attendant. James Badge Dale has a curious, somewhat effective single scene as a cancer survivor who runs into both Whip and Nicole during their stay at a hospital. Melissa Leo turns up at the end to grill Whitaker about his actions on the day of the crash. I would not want to be grilled by Melissa Leo under the best of circumstances.

Flight‘s muddy middle section is nowhere nearly as entertaining as the delirious first thirty minutes, nor can it compare with the unexpected, oddball finale. The religious allusions scattered throughout are thought-provoking, if vague (and hampered by Zemeckis’ heavy-handed delivery). Frankly, it’s filler compared to the bare bones of the story and Whitaker’s complex, thoroughly compelling, and poignant performance. We’re well used to liking Denzel’s anti-heroes, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen one of them act so desperately; one who begs his colleagues for confidentiality, and eventually clemency. It’s easy to endorse Flight on account of its creative revitalisation of Washington and Zemeckis’ careers, as well as the fine ringers that round out the cast, and the early, gobsmacking action scene. I’d be hesitant, however, to go much further than that. Gatins should be applauded for including a few new tricks amongst the tropes, but I don’t suspect further rumination on his religious allegory will make it any clearer or more satisfying. Flight is a good film made better by the prospect of what new ground lies ahead for its star and director.

3.5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Flight arrives in Australian cinemas January 31, 2013.

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