Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.
A mysterious suitcase brings together a down-on-his-luck dad an unhappy housewife their two teenage kids a couple of hitmen a pair of street hoodlums two FBI agents two Miami cops and a large psychedelic toad. Oh and a guy named Puggy. The dad Eliot (Tim Allen) wishes his son Matt (Ben Foster) didn't think he was a loser. The housewife Anna (Rene Russo) wishes she could divorce her rich jerk of a husband Arthur (Stanley Tucci) while her daughter Jenny (Zooey Deschanel) and Matt sort of have the hots for each other. Meanwhile the cops (Janeane Garofalo and Patrick Warburton) keep catching Matt with a loaded squirt gun (don't ask). The hitmen (Dennis Farina and Jack Kehler) who both detest Florida fly in from New Jersey to whack Arthur. The two really stupid thugs (Tom Sizemore and Johnny Knoxville) want to make a quick score and happen upon the suitcase seeing it as their golden ticket. The FBI guys (Heavy D and Omar Epps) know what's in the suitcase and know it needs to be disposed of--quickly. As for Puggy (Jason Lee) and the toad well they just are. The fun and excitement lead them all (except the toad) to the Miami airport where a showdown between the suitcase and the rest ensues.
In a cast of thousands Allen and Russo are certainly at the emotional core of the film but unfortunately aren't allowed to do anything really zany unlike the other cohorts. Allen has played several reluctant heroes lately (i.e. last year's Joe Somebody but when is he going to play somebody wacky again? There are nonetheless some true standout comedic performances in Big Trouble especially from Farina and Tucci. Farina as an outside observer has some of the better double takes while an over-the-top and obnoxiously noxious Tucci is a real hoot. Also good are Garofalo and Warburton as Miami's finest. Garofalo is simply the master of the deadpan response and the chemistry with Warburton is clearly evident. It is also a nice change of pace to cast Heavy D and Epps as the cool and dangerous FBI agents rather than the bumbling sort we get so used to. On the other hand Sizemore and Knoxville (yes the guy from MTV's Jackass) are just too stupid and sweaty to be believable--playing dumb does not always equal hilarious comedy. It's the toad though who steals the show. Big green and able to shoot hallucinogenic fluids into your eyes the bufo marinus (as it likes to be called) is priceless.
Based on Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry's novel of the same name Big Trouble starts off fairly solid as we are introduced to all the colorful characters. This is familiar territory for director Barry Sonnenfeld having directed another great ensemble film Get Shorty where we follow a bunch of characters all trying to get one thing. Shorty however is based on a witty novel by Elmore Leonard and unfortunately it's the material and not the direction that fails in Trouble. When Barry's material is at its best as with his skewed version of the Sunshine State as seen through the eyes of the two assassins from Jersey it makes for the most interesting parts of the film. Yet the story falls apart in the last third of the film as the masses make their way to the airport for the big climax. It gets very slapsticky and loses the quirky tone it had set up in the beginning. There was also a good reason Disney held off releasing the movie last September--easily getting a suspicious metal suitcase through airport security would have made people very uncomfortable then. Now it's just kind of silly.