Thursday, January 24, 2013

Capsule Film Reviews: Passenger 57

Passenger 57, 1992, WB, Directed by Kevin Hooks, Written by David Loughery and Dan Gordon from a story by Steward Raffill and Dan Gordon, 84 minutes, 2:35:1

The Hollywood Western with its good guys and its bad guys just didn’t play that well with the young film going public that was beginning to make its mark on film going demographics in the wake of the 1960s. Many at the time began to see the Hollywood Western as a celebration of American imperialism, the same immoral imperialism, they felt, that led the nation in to Vietnam, and many of America's countercultural and counterculture influenced youth were no longer enamoured of the ideologies of manifest destiny that underlay the Hollywood Western. It took Hollywood a while to find a popular alternative to the once popular Western. Jaws cost $8 million dollars and took in some $430.5, much of it from the young demographics, making Hollywood suits go all giddy over the thriller. Star Wars cost $11 million dollars and took in some $775 million dollars, again much it from younger filmgoers, making Hollywood suits go giddy over the science fiction special effects laden action film. All hail the blockbuster.

Eventually Hollywood would find a way to modernize the Western with its unalloyed good guys and unalloyed bad guys, its action, its gunfights, and its little bit of romance. It morphed into the action adventure film, a genre that Hollywood’s new demographic obsession, teensomething to thirty something males, voted for with their ticket purchases. Die Hard (1988), where good guy New York City cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), who sachets into town to see his estranged wife and finds that a group of foreign bad guys have taken over the town of Nakatomi, but who manages to defeat the black hats after several gun fights and several blow em ups and with a little help from one of the few competent cops in LA, cost $ 28 million dollars to make and took in $137 million dollars worldwide. Numbers like these, of course, are about the only thing Hollywood cared about in the wake of the break up of the studio system.

Passenger 57 is the action adventure film that made Wesley Snipes an action adventure star. But it is an action adventure film with a difference. When white hat hero John Cutter (Snipes) tells black hat bad guy Rane (Bruce Payne) that you should always bet on black when playing roulette, he means it. Passenger 57 was directed by one of the few Black directors working in Hollywood, Kevin Brooks. It has a Black lead, Wesley Snipes. It has a Black love interest for hero Cutter played by Alex Datcher. Blacks play important roles as FBI agents. Passenger 57, in other words, did bet on black, at least in part, and it won. The film, which cost $15 million dollars to make took in $44 million the US. Not Die Hard numbers but not bad either.

Passenger 57 has many of the standard Western err Action Adventure film paint by the generic numbers traits. There’s the good guy with a past, John Cutter (Wesley Snipes). There’s the good girl tough chick and love interest for our good guy, Marti Slayton (Alex Datcher). There’s the good guy sometime companion of our good guy, Sly Delvecchio (Tom Sizemore). There’s the good guys posse who sometimes leave something to be desired in terms of competency and sometimes serve as a bit of Walter Brennanish comic relief. There’s the bad guy with a past, a past, however, that doesn’t humanize or make our bad guy sympathetic—can’t have that—the British aristocrat Charles “Rane of Terror” Rane (Bruce Payne). There’s the sadistic gang of the bad guy, a gang that that seems to prefer shut em up brutality to almost anything else. In a bit of a genre and gender bending moment one of the members of the bad guys “posse” is a bad ass chick (Elizabeth Hurley) who, like Rane, loves her steaks rare, who, in other words, loves her FBI agents put out of action with bullets through their heads preferably by her. There’s the hermetic and claustrophobic town, in this case the aeroplane. And there’s lots of those Western, err Action Adventure, fistfights, gunfights, things being blown up, and, a little bit of romance between all the testosterone driven action. Passenger 57, in other words, is rather like an updated version of Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo (1959). Yippie kay yay.

Short well-known story even shorter, good guys win. Good guy John Wayneish loner professional ("I'm the best", "Need help? No"), kills bad guy. Bad guys killed or captured. Good guy walks into the sunset with Angie Dickinsonish girl on his arm and with his past conquered. Viewers given a lot of vicarious blow em ups, gun fights, fist fights, and kick em out of airplane doors while the aeroplane is thousands of feet in the air thrills. Good film even if the attempt by the scriptwriters to keep the adrenaline rush going over 84 minutes doesn’t always seem “logical”--plane hijacked, plane brought down in Lake Lucille, Louisiana when good guy dumps fuel, bad guy escapes from plane into nearby fairground, good guy tracks down bad guy at fairground, bad guy captured, bad guy escapes yet again and is back on the plane with hostages, good guy kills bad guy by kicking him out of plane door--and often seems more like attempts by the screenwriters to get themselves out of the corners they continually paint themselves into. Two and a half stars. And hey, didn't you just love that Snipes as Arsenio Hall they all look alike joke?

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