Released in the summer of 1997, Air Force One arrived towards the end of the Die Hard clone era. After Die Hard flourished at the box office in 1988, studios began clamouring to replicate the film’s success; leading to the birth of an entire action subgenre. Take, for instance, Speed (Die Hard on a bus), Under Siege (Die Hard on a boat), and Passenger 57 (Die Hard on a plane). By 1997, the well had ostensibly run dry, with Die Hard clones becoming relegated to direct-to-video releases with fading stars and recycled stories. And then along came Air Force One, which showed Hollywood another way to make a Die Hard spin: make the John McClane archetype the President of the United States as played by Harrison Ford. The result is one of the greatest Die Hard clones of its decade. An unabashedly jingoistic, patriotic blockbuster, Air Force One benefits from the exceptional directorial touch of Wolfgang Peterson (In the Line of Fire) and an ideal cast.
Fresh off the success of a joint American-Russian mission to capture rogue world leader General Radek (Prochnow), United States President James Marshall (Ford) delivers a controversial speech declaring that he will not negotiate with terrorists. On the flight home, Air Force One is summarily hijacked by Russian terrorists posing as reporters. Led by ultra-nationalist Ivan Korshunov (Oldman), the terrorists kill several passengers and take the survivors hostage. In contact with the American Vice President (Close) after President Marshall ostensibly leaves in the plane’s escape pod, Korshunov demands for Radek to be released from prison, and promises to execute a hostage every half an hour until his demands are met. However, Korshunov did not anticipate for the determined President Marshall to secretly remain onboard the plane armed with both the skill and determination to rescue his family and friends.
Even the most energetic and creative action films are likely to foster at least a vague sense of déjà vu due to the nature of the genre – after all, there are only so many ways to blow stuff up and stage shootouts. Thus, it should not be surprising to hear that elements of Air Force One are familiar; the script seems to have been assembled using bits and pieces from other films about terrorists, airplanes, hijacking, hostages, politics and cat-and-mouse chases. Thankfully, all of this stuff is perfectly palatable thanks to Wolfgang Peterson’s proficient directorial efforts. Peterson was able to use the film’s plane setting to great effect, creating a cramped, rather claustrophobic disposition affording tension and danger. The shootouts are great, and the action in general is constantly invigorating. Intoxicating bursts of nail-biting tension are present throughout as well, making this a skilful addition to the action genre rather than a dumb compilation of people killing one another. From a technical perspective, Air Force One is a winner. From the lavish, intricate production design to the predominantly impressive special effects and Jerry Goldsmith’s thrilling score, the film has been assembled with tremendous skill. The sole technical drawback is that the demise of Air Force One suffers from unbelievably phoney digital effects.
Fortunately, Air Force One does not insult the audience. This movie receives way too much unfounded criticism – people constantly use the umbrella denigration “it’s dumb and implausible” without providing sufficient evidence. Perhaps some people are so accustomed to blatantly dumb blockbusters that they cannot recognise a comparatively smart blockbuster when they see it. It’s also surprising how much plausible material is hailed as dumb. Midair gunfire is criticised, but even the real Air Force One has been specifically hardened against gunfire, and thus the film reflects that. The premise seems implausible too, but it was executed believably enough (though the lack of terrorist casualties during their shootout with Secret Service agents is a bit on the absurd side, granted). Heck, a former Secret Service agent has even admitted there’s a one-in-a-million chance that Air Force One could be hijacked. At no point is Air Force One detrimentally stupid – it just takes a few liberties. And since the film is so exciting and well-made, who cares if it does take liberties?
In the leading role, Harrison Ford is suitably charismatic. Ford was in his action prime at the time of Air Force One, and he is probably the only star we could believe as an ass-kicking president. It’s unlikely that any other performer would have been able to pull off the combination of genuine acting talent, movie star charisma, and the badass disposition of the world’s best action stars. The President is not portrayed as a bulletproof hero – rather, Marshall evokes the humanity which characterised Die Hard‘s John McClane; he is a man motivated by family and conscience who shows he is not invincible. Marshall is also a President of honour who has a code of ethics… He’s almost too good to be true. Alongside Ford, Gary Oldman brings dimensionality, menace and a believable Russian accent to the role of Ivan Korshunov. As a result, the vicious verbal battles between Oldman and Ford are almost as intense as the action scenes. Also in the cast is Glenn Close who’s effectively steely as the Vice President, and William H. Macy who’s a certifiable hoot as a loyal major with a machine gun.
A highly enjoyable and intense time killer, Air Force One does not redefine the action movie, but it is a terrific genre flick which hits all the right notes and has it where it counts. Spectacular action of the refreshing old-school variety is the order of the day here, which is topped off by a strong, likeable hero and a villain who’s easy to hate. In short, Air Force One is irresistible escapist entertainment which holds up well to repeat viewings.