Plane begins with pilot Brodie Torrance (Butler), who is running through an airport, late for his flight that he needs to get on to make it home to his daughter (Haleigh Hekking) in Hawaii. It is a New Year’s flight from Singapore to Tokyo that he observes with his copilot Dele (Yoson An) will take them right through a storm. The holiday timing invites comparisons to Die Hard, but this film will never gain the iconic status that work has. When Brodie suggests they take a route that is longer but safer, he is informed by a callous representative for the fictional airline Trailblazer that this will cost too much in additional fuel on a flight with so few passengers.
Begrudgingly, Torrance agrees that they will go on the predetermined route. Before all the passengers are then loaded onto the plane, we are introduced to Louis Gaspare (Colter), who is brought on in handcuffs as he is being extradited for a crime he committed. Again, Torrance is less than thrilled about this but just goes along with it in the hopes that the flight will be a smooth one. When they do take off, the plane is soon struck by lightning. They are forced to crash-land on an island in the Philippines that, wouldn’t you know it, has armed goons who kidnap the passengers. This leaves Brodie and Louis with no choice but to take up arms to rescue them while the airline tries to get them off the island.
Such a premise is just sturdy enough that it is hard to dismiss Plane entirely. Many truly great action films have been built around far less and managed to make the most of it. Indeed, there are flashes of this potential when Louis picks up a hammer while on a stealth mission to the concluding shootout that embraces a macabre absurdity. While this makes for proper action fun, the road that it takes to get there puts a damper on the entire affair. For much of the film, it didn’t feel like we were watching an action spectacle as much as we were watching a television pilot.
Plane goes through all the motions, briefly introducing us to the stock characters of the crew and the passengers that are serviceable yet slight, just without any momentum to it. Everything feels like it is dragging its feet in laying all the cards on the table, playing out without any sense of urgency or energy as if it has all the time in the world. There is no emotional undercurrent or sense of stakes to anything that we are seeing unfold. It continually dangles the promise of something actually exciting happening, but the delivery on this is utterly scattered to the point of being fleeting. Save for the explosive ending, there is no scene that will stick out in the memory for any longer than a moment after the credits finally roll.
Take when Brodie first encounters one of the kidnappers while trying to send a message back to the airline. The fight is meant to be intentionally awkward and grounded with the men rolling around in an abandoned building. Yet, as the two struggle in a battle to the death, this starts to shift into being oddly tedious and stilted in how it is constructed. Both in terms of its stunts and how it is shot, it is all aggressively simplistic and banal. When Louis then walks in shortly thereafter, now armed to the teeth, it is meant to be a joke in how smooth he is by comparison. Mostly, this just draws attention to how something more exciting was apparently happening just off-screen that we didn’t get to see.
While action films can deftly withhold some of the spectacle to ensure the moments where it goes off packs more of a punch, Plane continually feels like it is holding back. Scenes meant to be tense or thrilling end up feeling hollow when there is nothing substantive to any of the actual filmmaking. Cutaways to a stuffy boardroom of Trailblazer suits trying to deal with the crisis drag everything down further.
Though it was never going to be a masterpiece in terms of its story, there is a genuinely disappointing and surprising lack of joy to be had in the experience of everything else. For all the ways critics can grade on a curve for a film like this, excuses can’t be given to works that fail to capitalize on even the basics. If there is any saving grace to the experience, there is occasionally some fun to be had in the back-and-forth between the two leads. Both Butler and Colter, while playing characters who are only barely a step above cardboard cutouts, still give it their all. Neither are phoning it in, but this only leaves a desire that they were in a better overall film. For all the ways it takes flight towards the end, Plane is an action flick that is mostly plain, the greatest sin for any film that should and could have gotten wilder.
Plane comes to theaters on January 13.