Terminal Velocity: An Overlooked Action Movie

Long before Fast & Furious, Terminal Velocity - starring Charlie Sheen - was chucking cars out of planes...

Imagine a large cargo plane flying through the sky over a majestic desert landscape. Imagine a vintage red Cadillac glistening in the sun. Imagine said Cadillac plummeting out of the back of said plane with Charlie Sheen behind the wheel. Welcome to Terminal Velocity.

Terminal Velocity is the story of ‘Ditch’ Brodie, a shallow, egotistical skydiving instructor who becomes embroiled in a complicated scheme involving body doubles, a fetching femme fatale (Nastassja Kinski), a 747 filled with gold, a pair of Russian baddies played by Tony Soprano and Shooter McGavin, and lots of sky-diving. The plot is rote, the supporting players are archetypes and the score is over-bearing in its self-seriousness. And yet, somehow, for a movie featuring a main character called Ditch and a three-legged dog called Tripod, it doesn’t just work, it works beautifully.

Let’s jump into the reasons why.

Our hero(es)

Playing a narcissistic douchebag with a party-hard attitude, Charlie Sheen is in his element as self-proclaimed ‘flying penis’ Ditch. Made at a time when he was still making the transition from serious thespian to comedy star, Terminal Velocity is Sheen’s best foray into the action genre. For a movie that is otherwise relatively unadventurous for the genre, his character is surprisingly original. Despite his skill set and daredevil antics, on the ground Ditch is just an average guy. He is not even John McClane ‘average’ — Ditch hates danger, doesn’t know how to fight, runs away whenever he can, and, in one glorious moment, doesn’t even know how a gun works.

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It becomes very clear that outside of falling out of planes, he has no clue about anything. It is possible Ditch still has no idea what the villain’s plot is at the climax. Somewhat appropriately for a movie featuring ex-communist villains, he is also extremely materialistic. He is obsessed with his appearance, treats women like fairground rides and is highly protective of his car, a vintage Dodge Challenger (think Vanishing Point). It is highly emblematic of how selfish he is that Ditch’s most emotional outburst comes when he is forced to watch his beloved car get riddled with bullets and then blown up with a bazooka.

Ditch accepts a new student, Chris (Kinski), with an eye to getting in her pants. When she appears to die in the jump, Ditch finds himself in the firing line for failing to prevent the ‘accident’. Though Ditch swears he had secured her line, the safety inspectors do not believe him. Thanks to a litany of past violations, including low-altitude jumps into sports games, Ditch is the perfect patsy. After he finds evidence that Chris was lying about never jumping before, and has a run in with a knife-wielding psycho in her apartment, the pieces begin to fall into place.

When he finally finds Chris alive, Ditch finds himself in the sights of Chris’s old employers, a group of ex-KGB sleeper agents who have hijacked a shipment of their government’s gold reserves to to finance a coup to restore the old order. Still needing Chris to prove his innocence, Ditch is blackmailed into becoming her unwilling accomplice in trying to stop the villains and prevent Cold War II.

This is where the movie takes a rather interesting twist on the usual action movie gender dynamics. For a large part of the movie Ditch is really just Chris’s sidekick, and spends most of the movie cowering behind Chris’s battle-hardened ex-KGB agent. His role is comparable to Kurt Russell’s in Big Trouble In Little China – ostensibly the lead, he tags along like a befuddled ignoramus while Chris, the real badass, hunts down the bad ‘uns.

As Sheen’s ostensible romantic interest, Nastassja Kinski is surprisingly effective. A strong contrast to Ditch’s flashy ladies man, Krista ‘Chris’ Moldova is intelligent, capable and surprisingly empathetic for a KGB agent in this type of movie. Disavowed by her government, Chris is on a one-woman quest to foil her old comrades’ plans. In deep cover for over a decade, she has not seen her family in years and hence has a personal stake in stopping the villains’ plans. With Ditch hopeless in the ‘action hero’ department, Chris is a more than adequate stand-in.

With her knowledge of airplanes, international affairs and weapons, Chris is far more worldly than Ditch and is more than capable of verbally sparring with the cocky Yank. The writers (including future Pitch Black magus David Twohy) manage to make Chris more than just a monosyllabic Slavic killing machine, and give her enough dimension to make her (at least for the first half) more sympathetic than Ditch. The fact that Kinski is slightly older than Sheen adds to the sense of Chris being a mentor for Ditch, someone who can call him on his bullshit and force him to grow up.

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With its unheroic protagonist and sympathetic Russian spy, Terminal Velocity proves that, while it does not make any attempt to be more than the simple action comedy it is, it has a few inventive ideas outside of the stunts and special effects which make it a far more intriguing watch than the mindless Friday night distraction it purports to be.

Bring on the bad guys

When it comes to the foes facing Ditch and Chris, I don’t mind admitting that Terminal Velocity kind of lets the side down. On the one hand, you have James Gandolfini as Ben Pinkwater, Chris’s old boss. An underwhelming follow-up to his scene-stealing turn in True Romance, Gandolfini clearly tried to till the limited soil he’d been given. His one chance to shine comes when he goes undercover as a stuffy bureaucrat to find out what Ditch knows.

Constantly fiddling in his pockets, chewing snacks, applying eyedrops or nose spray, Gandolfini brings a nervy spark to this brief character bit which is completely different from the character’s more bullish, sadistic personality. Gandolfini pulls just about every trick in the book to dress up what would otherwise be a rather colourless villain. In any other movie, this self-consciously ‘character’ performance would come off as completely ridiculous, but in the heightened Looney Toons world of Terminal Velocity it fits right in.

However, if anyone gets points in the rogues gallery, it is Christopher McDonald as Gandolfini’s goon, Kerr. At first he just comes off as an angrier version of his Shooter McGavin character from Happy Gilmore. Clearly meant to be this movie’s version of the psycho henchman, he has little to do other than be angry and punch things. However, like Gandolfini, McDonald makes up for this lack of screen time by taking what little he has and cranking it up to 11. Heck, he pushes it to 110.

McDonald’s performance is so over-the-top it becomes one of the film’s highlights. Every time a plan is foiled or our heroes manage to get away, Kerr can be counted on to punch something and scream in frustration. He slams his hand against so many things with such regularity it becomes somehow reassuring in its dependability — there’s even a bit where he punches his gun for running out of bullets.

On a slightly kinkier note, he appears to be in love with his car (the red Cadillac I mentioned in the intro). When he is not punching things or shouting, he is caressing the vehicle and cooing over its bodywork like the curves of a Playboy centrefold. The two sides of his personality eventually smash together at the climax when Ditch tries to steal his car while onboard an airborne cargo plane. One of the film’s indelible images is Kerr leaping onto the bonnet and screaming like a spurned lover as Ditch makes his getaway out of the back of the plane and into space. Don’t get between that man and his car.

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Now that we’ve made it through all that stuff, onto the most important thing: the action. For all the inconsistencies with the other aspects of the film, director Deran Sarafian knows how to sell the mayhem. There are shootouts in scrap yards, shootouts in planes, both on the ground and in the air, plenty of explosions and a completely gratuitous martial arts fight involving a woman in her underwear.

The best of the non-airborne action sequences is the destruction of Ditch’s car. Throughout this demolition, Ditch reacts with a series of groans and expletives — like he is the one taking the hits. This scene is very funny, but also very symbolic of Ditch’s character — in order to mature, Ditch has to have his toys taken away. It’s not until the ending, when Chris is kidnapped that Ditch completes his transformation from self-absorbed air jock to good guy. When he decides to risk his life for someone else, Ditch overcomes his own cowardice and self-absorption to become a real hero.

Fittingly, for a movie filled with set pieces, the best sequences are the jumps. In this respect, the filmmakers deserve credit for making sure that each jump is more difficult than the previous one, with the stakes escalating significantly to match (a trick the similarly themed Drop Zone failed to do). While this is a familiar action movie tactic, each of these jumps serve the more important function of showing the evolution of Ditch’s character.

The first jump, our introduction to Ditch, shows our hero making a low altitude jump into the middle of a city. Falling past a helicopter, angling between skyscrapers and then landing in the middle of a party, Ditch is immediately established as a cocky daredevil. He’s also incredibly stupid, as is shown in the punchline to this stunt — it turns out that the client who paid for the jump is a clean-cut family wanting to surprise their young daughter ‘Bernadette’ on her birthday, not the ‘bachelorette’ party he mistakes it for.

The second major jump involves Ditch being press-ganged into doing a Mission: Impossible and parachuting into the middle of the bad guy’s base. Taking place at night, with Chris remote-controlling his movements from outside, this sequence shows off both Ditch’s skills in his job, and limitations as a secret agent. Blundering about the facility with Kerr and his henchmen on his tail, he barely avoids getting shot and has to make his own escape when Chris cuts and runs. Ditch is finally able to employ his abilities at low-altitude jumps when he uses a secondary chute to get off the top of the building and over an electrified fence.

The final aerial sequence, in which Ditch attempts a mid-air rescue of Chris by jumping from the wing of one plane into the hold of a larger one, manages to be both sublimely ridiculous and incredibly tense. Once Ditch is in the plane, he ends up behind the wheel of a vintage sports car plunging toward earth while fist fighting Kerr. If that is not bad enough, Chris is locked in the boot. And that’s just the beginning of the climax. Fans of Tom Cruise’s Dubai tower antics in Mission: Impossible 4 and the endless runway chase in Fast 6 will feel right at home as the insanity escalates from there.

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In closing

I have had numerous arguments with myself about whether Terminal Velocity is meant to be a comedy. In the end, I gave up. When an unapologetic action movie is this well put together, who cares? Sure, it’s kind of cheesy, filled with cliches and is not above ripping off other movies (there’s an action beat that is taken straight from Die Hard 2), but that is half the fun. The action scenes are great, the one liners are memorable (“Pack the bags, we’re heading on a guilt trip!”), and the pace never lets up.

Furthermore, I have to give kudos to Charlie Sheen. It goes without saying that, especially in the last decade, he has turned into a parody of himself. But while the action is terrific, Terminal Velocity would be nothing without its star. With his comic timing and charisma, Sheen gets the inherent ridiculousness of the whole enterprise in a way that potential leads Tom Cruise and Michael Douglas would not have. He is the glue that turns what could have been a silly, slightly dour action movie into a fast, funny thrill ride.

In an era where Fast And Furious is the lone bastion for over-the-top action flicks, Terminal Velocity deserves a re-appraisal and a fan base. Check it out.