Given the films that he’s made over the past three decades, it’s a bit of a jolt to see a new Robert Zemeckis movie open with a shot of a naked woman. In fact, just seeing a physical human being in a Zemeckis movie has been a rarity in itself. That’s not to say his performance capture work hasn’t been without results: his dark, child-unfriendly take on A Christmas Carol remains underrated for this reviewer’s money. But Flight is surely his best movie in a long, long time.
It’s a film that marries up Zemeckis’ world-class ability to stage action-packed set piece cinema, with a terrific lead performance from Denzel Washington. We’re quickly introduced to Washington’s character, a passenger plane pilot who oversleeps, drinks on the job, and is fond of powdering his nose. But when catastrophe strikes, it’s his flight skills that establish him as an unexpected and unlikely national hero (there are echoes of Stephen Frears’ Accidental Hero in places). What’s more, the sequence where Washington grapples with his out of control plane, shooting backwards and forwards between the cockpit and the passengers, is extraordinary cinema. It’s hard to think of too many directors outside of Zemeckis who could pull it off, and it’s the absolute highlight of the film.
Yet that’s all done and dusted by the time a third of Flight’s running time is clocked up, leaving the rest of the film to explore the film’s overarching question: is Washington’s character a hero after all? As such, Flight becomes more of a character study, as a deeply flawed and troubled man struggles to contain his drinking, and to stay together in the face of the inevitable investigation into the plane crash itself.
Flight, as such, treads ground we’ve seen many times before on the big screen. In this case, it positions lots of unmemorable characters around one very memorable one. Don Cheadle’s lawyer goes through fairly predictable motions (although Cheadle does his best with the material). Meanwhile, Kelly Reilly plays a drug addict who befriends Washington’s character, but she’s in a similar boat to Cheadle. John Goodman, meanwhile, feels like he’s blasted in from a completely different film, and soon blasts straight out again, albeit leaving his mark on the way. He might not quite fit the film, but he knows how to make an impact.
Which leaves the towering Denzel Washington, with one of the best performances of his career. There are two big reasons to watch Flight. One is the aforementioned plane crash itself. The other is seeing an excellent actor on excellent form. His character is morally troubled, risky and far away from the archetypical Hollywood leading man part, and all the better for it. Thus, even though the material may be familiar (even if the context isn’t), the strength of Washington’s work comfortably justifies the ticket price.
As for Zemeckis, he has a rare ability, on top form, to marry up technologically advanced filmmaking with a real human core to it (the eventual hearing towards the end of the movie is nearly as gripping as that opening half hour), and Flight suggests that he’s at home with adult-centric material as he is family fare. Where he goes next will be interesting, but for now, Flight is a good film, made much stronger by its two main contributors demonstrating why, when they choose well, they’re some of the best in the business.
Flight is out in UK cinemas now.
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