Starring Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly. Written by John Gatins. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. 18A. 139 min. Opens Nov. 2.
Judging by the bravura sequence of mid-air tension and terror that dominates the opening stretch of Flight, director Robert Zemeckis spent the 12 years since his last live-action movie, Cast Away, thinking up an even better way to stage a plane crash. Skittish flyers who haven’t been moved to faint or flee will be relieved to discover that the rest of Zemeckis’s new film is a strictly earthbound experience, one whose smartest moves compensate for failings that might’ve had more disastrous effects in a less audacious endeavour.
Indeed, Flight is bold for reasons beyond its harrowing portrayal of a passenger jet’s sudden descent and the desperate but ingenious efforts to land it in one piece by pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington). For one thing, Whip’s eager consumption of illicit substances shortly before heading into the cockpit on that fateful morning clinches Flight’s status as the booziest and druggiest Hollywood studio drama since Martin Scorsese’s Casino. Having performed his heroic act while ripped to the gills, Whip must then contend with his newfound fame while denying the extent of his addiction to himself and everyone else. He also finds some solace in a romance with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a similarly troubled addict Whip meets while recovering from his crash injuries.
Whip’s interactions with his pal and union rep, Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), and sharp-witted defence attorney, Hugh (Don Cheadle), delve into the juicy array of moral, ethical, and legal issues prompted by his predicament. Yet for all its bluster, Flight remains an addiction drama at its core, one with a disappointingly conventional arc and resolution, plus a few too many opportunities for its star to showboat. To be fair, Washington hasn’t been so engaged or so tested by his material since 2006’s great one-two punch of Spike Lee’s Inside Man and Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu. At his best here, he nails Whip’s volatile mix of swagger and self-pity with the same degree of skill and finesse that Zemeckis uses to realize every airline passenger’s worst nightmare.