With another deeply committed performance, Washington brings badly needed complexity to what is otherwise a contrived, overstated drama about addiction. It helps that the film is directed by Zemeckis as a kind of companion piece to his last live-action movie, 2000's Cast Away, another film about a man whose life is dramatically changed by a plane crash. Although here he's lost in a wilderness of substance abuse.
Washington plays Whip, a veteran commercial pilot who fills his days with women, alcohol and drugs. Even when he's flying a plane full of passengers. On a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta, a catastrophic malfunction sends his airliner hurtling toward the ground, prompting an outrageously inventive reaction that saves 96 of the 102 lives on board. Then the investigators discover that he had both alcohol and cocaine in his system at the time. His union rep (Greenwood) hires a high-powered lawyer (Cheadle) to represent him, but Whip doesn't even try to straighten up until he meets young junkie Nicole (Reilly), who's serious about cleaning up her life.
The main problem here is that Gatins' script completely misses the point of his own story, never remotely touching on the central theme of a flawed hero who has no real moral compass. So drugs are the villain; it has nothing to do with Whip's personal failings. Instead, the script just uses a variety of contrived characters to confront him with his drug problems until he finally cracks under all this pressure. Fortunately, Washington is excellent as the high-functioning addict, and the supporting cast is solid in providing whatever element Gatins needs at the moment: Cheadle's straight-arrow efficiency, Reilly's hopeful anguish and Greenwood's steadfast friendship, plus scene-stealer Goodman as Whip's hilariously honest dealer-buddy and Leo as a ruthlessly tenacious investigator.
It also helps that Zemeckis approaches the story with his usual visual skill, catching telling details with tricky camerawork and some jaw-dropping effects. The opening crash sequence is astonishing enough to make you hesitate before getting on a plane, and the film's quiet moments carry just as much weight. So it's a real shame that the script is so shallow, merely settling for another moralistic tale about the dangers of alcohol and drugs rather. There's nothing wrong with that, but if it had also addressed its more pressing themes, the film could have been much more important.
Run time: 138 mins
In Theaters: Friday 2nd November 2012
Box Office USA: $93.7M
Box Office Worldwide: $92.7M
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: Parkes/MacDonald Productions, Paramount Pictures, ImageMovers
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 78%
Fresh: 170 Rotten: 49
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriter: John Gatins
Starring: Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, Don Cheadle as Hugh Lang, Bruce Greenwood as Charlie Anderson, Kelly Reilly as Nicole, John Goodman as Harling Mays, Brian Geraghty as Ken Evans, Nadine Velazquez as Katerina Marquez, Tamara Tunie as Margaret Thomason, Melissa Leo as Ellen Block, Garcelle Beauvais as Deana, Justin Martin as Will Whitaker Jr., Peter Gerety as Avington Carr
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