Gerard Butler and Mike Colter Fly Their Plane through January Skies

Movies Reviews Gerard Butler
Gerard Butler and Mike Colter Fly Their Plane through January Skies

Plane was probably not produced specifically with its January release date in mind; Gerard Butler has certainly proved himself a man for all off-seasons. But there’s a certain satisfaction in realizing Butler’s latest B-movie programmer begins on New Year’s Eve, which means it’s the rare January Movie that actually and specifically takes place in January, at least in part. This is a movie that knows its place: on the cinematic equivalent of a mass-market paperback shelf at an airport newsstand. (One of its screenwriters, Charles Cumming, is even a prolific author of spy novels.)

The New Year’s setting serves a variety of plot conveniences. It assures that commercial pilot Brodie Torrance (Gerard Butler) will have a passenger-light flight on his hands, which convinces an airline bean-counter that he should power through a raging storm, rather than waste fuel trying to go around it, and calls additional attention to Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter), a prisoner being extradited on homicide charges. The sparsely populated cabin also means that the movie doesn’t have to keep track of a full plane’s worth of passengers when the flight goes down with an emergency landing somewhere in the Philippines. The island is run by criminals, with no government to speak of, putting Brodie in a tight spot as he attempts to keep his passengers safe.

This would be about time for Louis to reveal that he’s not just a possible murderer but an ex-military badass, possibly with a heart of gold — and probably for Brodie to reveal his own unlikely Statham-esque past as some kind of professional ass-kicker. Some of this comes true: Louis does indeed reveal a merciless facility with DIY special ops, and Brodie does hold his own, particularly in a single-take scrap with one of the de facto enemy soldiers. But the movie also doesn’t write Brodie as a seething action hero, waiting to unleash his inner beast; his background really does consist primarily of 20 years as a commercial pilot and a single incident of punching out a drunken passenger in a fit of pique. By laying off the action-movie gas pedal, Plane makes Butler, performing in his native Scottish accent, more warmly likable than he’s been in years. (Even his better action movies tend to favor his abrasiveness, or a kind of stoic bloodlust.) Colter, from Evil and Luke Cage, coolly underplays, making his character’s feats of violence look downright pragmatic.

So when Louis and Brodie do team up, they don’t quip their way through a bunch of carnage — though there is some CG gore on hand. Director Jean-François Richet, who made the January Movie remake of Assault on Precinct 13, approaches the action as a series of logistical challenges, and if they don’t exactly flow and feed into each other like the best action movies, the lack of obvious set-piece architecture is oddly refreshing. It would be a stretch to call Plane a procedural, but Richet at least seems interested in the idea of procedure, cutting away to the corporate strategy sessions once Brodie’s airline realizes his plane is lost, and eventually outsourcing some of the crazier action to a team of personality-free mercenaries.

Are these extra ornaments there because the screenplay can’t come up with enough for Brodie, Louis, and the other passengers to actually do while stranded in the Philippines? It’s entirely possible. It’s also what keeps Plane parked in a pleasingly nebulous area between DTV and real movie. The film seems to have internalized the idea that it could be either busted back down to streaming or promoted to 3,000 screens at a moment’s notice, and needs to be ready for both possibilities. Maybe this is why the action scenes don’t overreach — and why the film offers a fair variety of suspense beyond its lead characters skulking through an island jungle.

There’s something limiting about this approach, to be sure; at times, the movie resembles an elaborate and particularly violent anecdote. Yet there’s also relief in the movie’s refusal to throw together rigged character arcs for Brodie or Louis, with canned lessons for them to learn. That they’re allowed to simply exist as two tersely likable guys working through a sticky situation lends the movie the faintest possible glimmer of grace. Richet even gets away with staging a poor man’s knockoff of a famous moment from Captain Phillips. This is basically the January version of that harrowing survival story — a deceptively relaxing way to simulate and alleviate some New Year’s stress.

Director: Jean-François Richet
Writer: Charles Cumming, J.P. Davis
Starring:: Gerard Butler, Mike Colter, Yoson An, Daniella Pineda, Tony Goldwyn
Release Date: January 13, 2023

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and whether he is drinking Mountain Dew Code Red.

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