Air Force One (1997)

Harrison Ford brings an unimpeachable sense of integrity to all of his roles, even the President of the United States. As *Air Force One* begins, President Jim Marshall, sobered by the suffering of war refugees, publicly vows that the US will actively crush dictatorships, and will never negotiate with terrorists. "It's your turn to be afraid," he warns the villains of the world.

Apparently, a certain group of die-hard Communists weren't listening, because only hours later, they hijack *Air Force One*, taking hostage the first family and half the cabinet. The President is hustled aboard an escape pod by his Secret Service agents, and presumably parachutes to safety. But this is Harrison Ford here, not Gerald Ford -- rest assured that he would never leave his wife and daughter, his loyal staff and the fate of the free world to a bunch of wild-eyed Soviets. No sir. President Marshall, decorated war veteran, devoted family man, patriot and liberal idealist is no waffler. He doesn't consult the polls first, he isn't crippled by indecision. He springs into action, crawling around in the bowels of the impressively realistic 747, picking off terrorists with his bare hands when he has to. This chief executive can execute.

It's surprisingly fun to watch a world leader beat the tar out of the bad guys. This is something we'll never see in real life, of course, not even when we elect some withered old third rate movie star as president. But wouldn't it be a far better world if our leaders duked it out themselves rather than sending in the troops and killing a bunch of civilians? (I doubt that Clinton would win many fights, what with his bad knee and all, but I bet he could take Newt. Hillary could whup Milosevich. And should the need arise, Chelsea could easily make mince meat of Yeltsin.) Fear of nuclear weapons could be replaced by fear of black eyes and broken noses. Presidents would have to train for summits with punching bags and push-ups, the Marquess of Queensbury rules would replace the tired old rules of diplomacy. George Foreman would eventually be president, Evander Holyfield might be vice president. The major drawback is that Mike Tyson would have the president's ear.

In the mean time, Ford gets my vote. This is an inspired piece of casting, with Ford embodying all the attributes we would like to see in our dream president: brains, ideals, conviction, an inability to knuckle-under, and a mean right hook. So much of the satisfaction of *Air Force One* derives from the perfection of this presidential fantasy, from the pleasure of seeing a president do the right thing, or do anything, for that matter. Although it could easily lapse into rah-rah patriotism (and veers close to it at times), *Air Force One* is effective because it doesn't get red-white-and-blue-faced, because sets very high *personal* stakes for the President as a human being, putting the father-husband-friend at odds with his own role as head of state, where the stakes are only slightly less personal for him, and no less important.

Top terrorist Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman) is an ultra-nationalist who dreams of reuniting Russia under the rule of strongman Alexander Radek (played by Jurgen Prochnow with icily effective silence), currently imprisoned in Kazakhstan. Ivan gets all misty-eyed when he speaks of "mother Russia." He gets positively verklempt when he hears "Le Internationale." He gets apoplectic about Kapitalism -- the very word seems to leave a bitter taste in his mouth as he spits it at the Pres. And, although he is a raving lunatic and an arch villain, he makes some valid points about American foreign policy and government sanctioned aggression. But of course, the President isn't negotiating with terrorists today.

*Air Force One* is hardly the first movie to posit a hostage situation on an airplane. But director Wolfgang Petersen, whose *Das Boot* was an early model of the tube thriller, manages to wring a surprising amount of suspense and emotion out of a well-worn plot device. *Air Force One*'s plot is not especially innovative or surprising -- the restricted space of a jetliner imposes limits on action and story -- but the characters are developed well, putting the emphasis here on the psychological aspects of terrorism. Marshall and Ivan are engaged in a hearts and minds battle, a test of wills, where it is always obvious that Marshall has the most to lose. The President may have drawn a political line in the sand, but Ivan has no qualms about stepping over it and dragging real humans along with him -- he is true to his word about killing hostages, and the executions are jolting and dreadful. The President feels their pain, and so, it seems, does Ivan.

Back at the White House, another test of wills develops as loyal, stiff-as-starch VP Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) engages in a Constitutional tussle with an ambitious Defense Secretary (Dean Stockwell) who quickly and comically declares "I'm in charge here!" It's a dandy subplot, contrasting the ineffectual political maneuvering on the ground with the highly effective, nonpolitical (though highly dogmatic) action in the air.

Even though it mostly develops exactly as expected, *Air Force One* is rich and satisfying, taking an unlikely circumstance to every possible extreme and making it paradoxically convincing and highly entertaining. There are moments of real dread, a sense of genuine personal and national violation in this movie that keep the tension high, while the characters are real enough to make their fates matter. There are lighter moments as well -- apparently even presidents have problems with surly telephone operators and cell phone batteries. One of the most stirring moments, one of the most deeply patriotic moments in *Air Force One* occurs when a very important fax goes through -- the very personal joy of fax and minor technological triumph colliding with collective patriotism in a breathtaking instant that is both moving and hilariously low-key. I've sent faxes too, and doggone it, I'm an American! (I think it was a Sony fax machine.)


Operation Condor (1997)

Abandon all reason, ye who enter here. In *Operation Condor*, Jackie Chan, action star par excellence, has done it again, crafting a spectacular movie that transcends the time honored rules of narrative and storytelling. Anyone stuck on sensible plots, character development, narrative arc and scintillating dialogue should just stay home, because *Operation Condor* can claim none of the above. Nonetheless it is a delightful trifle full of slapstick, supersonic stunts and amiable political incorrectness.

The plot, such as it is, is straight from the Indiana Jones files, with a little James Bond whipped into the mix. Chan is United Nations secret agent Jackie, code-name Condor, and his mission involves retrieving a fortune in Nazi gold hidden somewhere in the Sahara Desert. With a lovely U.N. attache as his guide, and aided by the granddaughter of the Nazi commandant who originally stashed the gold, Jackie battles Arab terrorists, spear-throwing Saharans (don't ask), Nazis and unaffiliated mercenaries.

None of which matters at all, of course, as the episodic story merely serves up occasions for spectacular fights and chases where Chan, performing his own stunts as always, laughs in the face of certain death again and again. *Operation Condor* features an imaginatively staged car chase that wreaks havoc on Barcelona, babies and ever-vulnerable produce merchants. An inspired, elaborate fight set in a wind tunnel gives rise to extended and hilarious gags as bodies fly about, stick to walls, and battle gales. Chan takes his inspiration from Buster Keaton, and his action sequences are every bit as inspired as those of the silent film master. Chan's physical prowess, also reminiscent of Keaton's, is unmatched in modern moviemaking. A natural acrobat who seemingly hops over ten foot walls as easily as he walks down the street, Chan brings an inimitable grace and elegance to movie mayhem that his muscle-bound action contemporaries, like Van Damme, Seagal and Schwarzenegger, just can't match.

The Chan movie persona is an affable, goofy fellow who never loses his good cheer even when surrounded by gun-toting villains. He is not unflappable, and not immune to pain, however, and much of the humor in Chan's movies is derived from the occasional fearfulness of a man who is so agile and fast, so obviously superior, so impervious to bullets, spears, and other projectiles. There is little in the way of character development beyond that, however. *Operation Condor* will not reveal anything about secret agent Jackie's homelife, his lovelife, nor his motivation, all of which are effectively non-existent. He's a good guy who does good things, and that's good enough.

*Operation Condor*, directed and co-written by Chan, contains about as little dialogue as is possible. In fact, it has about as much dialogue as might be found in a silent Keaton film, perhaps less. What little dialogue there is isn't too badly dubbed, however, with Chan actually dubbing his own lines in a welcome change. Jackie's accomplices in *Operation Condor* mostly squeal with girlish fright and fight to preserve their dignity and modesty, roughing up a few bad guys along the way as well, none of which requires them to say very much.

*Operation Condor* is not a new film, but is actually a 1991 film, newly released to American theaters. Chan has long been one of the most popular stars in the world, but, until recently, was an undiscovered gem in America. There are dozens of films in the Chan oeuvre which have never seen the light of a projector on this continent (although Chan fans in the know circulate videos); following the success of *Rumble In The Bronx*, his films are being re-released at a fast and furious pace, but not necessarily in chronological order. The drawback of looking backwards into Chan's film past is that with each successive film he makes, he gets inexplicably and impossibly better, raising the stakes by creating ever more spectacular, elegant and imaginative stunts. To see his older work is not always to see him at his best -- two films released last year, *First Strike* and *Supercop*, now available on video, are much better than *Operation Condor*. Regardless, the wonder of Jackie Chan's films is that they really do transcend narrative conventions and language barriers, and the shortcomings of *Operation Condor* don't really diminish the goofy fun of it.


Contact (1997)

It was a good week for Carl Sagan, wherever he is. A space station on Mars, the first one built by Earthlings, was named after the late astronomer. And a surprisingly intelligent and affecting movie, based on Sagan's novel *Contact*, afforded a quiet and thoughtful respite from the sound and the fury of the summer movie season.

*Contact* is a beautifully quiet film -- at times it is almost meditatively silent -- although it is a film about sound and listening to voices, both the voice within, and the voices *out there*. A rumination on science and religion, it explores the limits and possibilities of both, landing at the point at which fact and faith intersect.

*Contact* opens with a view of the universe, not as a silent, dark vacuum, but a place buzzing with signals, littered with radio and TV broadcasts, the aural detritus of Earth civilization zooming through space and time as an unofficial ambassador to worlds beyond. It is an unsettling image of Earth as a planetary despoiler of the universe, a place where the noise of modern life obscures the messages we send and the ones we might, potentially, receive. (As horrible as Don Imus is today, imagine his words travelling thousands of lights years for eons to come, to wash ashore on some distant, unsuspecting planet -- there's an argument for public radio if ever there was one.)

Back on Earth, Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), radio astronomer, listens for signs of extraterrestrial life. For Ellie, orphaned and alone since childhood, it is a search for scientific truth, for proof that we are not, in fact, alone. Her work is controversial, viewed by many, including her self-aggrandizing, intellectual thief of a boss Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), as a waste of time and resources. He cuts her funding, and she is forced to go begging, until she finds a benefactor in a mysterious, wealthy recluse.

When Ellie finally hears her extraterrestrial beacon, it sets in motion a whirlwind of earthly controversy and bureaucracy, as governments and groupies, foes and fanatics all flock, satellite dishes in hand, to listen in on the mysterious celestial signal. The message from the heavens contains a blueprint for a transport vehicle, designed to take a single passenger to a destination unknown.

Complicating Ellie's life is her on-again off-again affair with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), former seminarian turned popular author and skeptic. Joss is a deeply religious man who questions the values and virtues of science, who questions, foremost, unquestioning faith in science. As the spiritual advisor to the president (our president, Bill Clinton, that is), he is in a position to influence decisions about Ellie and her discovery .

McConaughey makes Joss both Christ-like and hunky, a prophet as sexiest man alive, but it is not his status as incidental love interest that makes Joss interesting. Rather it is his philosophical viewpoint -- he believes most of all in things that cannot be proved empirically, while Ellie believes only what she can see and hear and touch. The real conflict in *Contact*, the real mystery, does not involve little green men and signals from the stars, but the very nature of truth. The unstated implication that science is also a religion leads to fascinating philosophical complications for Ellie, whose the search for scientific truth requires more than one leap of faith.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis (*Forrest Gump*), *Contact* is quietly engrossing, with a lot more science in it than science fiction. Zemeckis isn't really much of a stylist, and he unnecessarily updates Sagan's novel by *Gump*ing in footage of Clinton (making his speech about the microbe-filled Mars rock), the Heaven's Gate cult suicides and such. Aside from those gimmicky touches, however, Zemeckis allows *Contact* its unconventional plot and characters, finding real intrigue and danger in worldly political machinations, and conflict in big abstractions like god, science, and humankind's place in the universe.

The screenplay by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg does a nice job of honing in on scientific theories and concepts, like special relativity and Occam's Razor -- it's the rare movie that would even make the attempt, but *Contact* is unusually intelligent, dealing with complex ideas in a way that is neither pedantic nor oversimplified. Even more rare these days is the movie character who thinks big thoughts -- Ellie and Joss do, and believably so, with dialogue that easily mixes the scientific, the spiritual and the commonplace to create conversations and complications that ring true.

Without much in the way of special effects, *Contact* looks and feels real, unhindered by distractions (with the exception of the Clinton inserts). Yet *Contact* has moments that are genuinely thrilling in much the same way that seeing pictures from Mars are thrilling and engrossing. Ellie's discovery of the message from space gave me goosebumps, in part because it was cinematically rendered so simply: a haunting, rhythmic noise accompanied by the visual image of the spiking lines of a soundwave graph. The thrills and chills of *Contact* don't come from death-defying stunts, but from the big stakes involved, from the sense of big questions being answered by characters that are real and developed.

*Contact* deftly juggles ideas that are as slippery as quicksilver, respecting mysteries, savoring the elusive. In a medium whose mantra is overstatement, *Contact* is nicely understated, letting visual images express unspoken ideas, and allowing silence to speak. There is little in the way of physical peril in *Contact*, and none of the monstrous aliens that are sci-fi staples, and that is perhaps the most unusual and enticing thing about this movie -- that it is the life of ideas, the thoughts and beliefs of characters, and not their corporeal beings, that are challenged and imperiled. The immaterial *is* the material of *Contact*.


Men In Black (1997)

The premise of *Men In Black* is that the whole UFO-extraterrestrial-Roswell-Area 51-government conspiracy hooha is really just an immigration problem. Aliens walk among us every day (primarily in New York City, naturally), and it's up to the mysterious men in black, those legendary maestros of cover-up and confabulation, to keep tabs on them. The MIBs run a secret customs check-in point (where aliens must declare all fruits and vegetables) in their secret headquarters which is full of secret technology. Aliens who mind their own business and obey the laws can roam freely and live like any other earthly creature (they aren't all disguised as humans, mind you); those who make trouble get trouble in return.

Based on the cult comic book by Lowell Cunningham, *Men In Black* is hip, cool and funny, a weird but effective mixture of comedy and sci-fi, with a witty script by Ed Solomon, spectacular production design by Bo Welch (*A Little Princess*, *Edward Scissorhands*) and aliens and nifty gadgets galore.

Tommy Lee Jones is the unflappable Agent K, an experienced alien-chaser who is on a first-name basis with all the local out-of-towners. K is sort of a high-tech, highly effective parole officer -- he knows where all this subjects are at all times, he knows which ones can grow a new head if necessary, and he sanguinely saves the world on a daily basis. Will Smith is Agent J, K's hand-picked recruit, having a wild first day on the job after a Bug, the meanest, nastiest, ugliest, most ill-tempered alien in the universe, crashes to Earth and steals the skin of Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio), an equally ill-tempered and ugly farmer from upstate New York. The Bug scares the bejeebers out of every upstanding alien in town as he staggers around in his ill-fitting Edgar suit in search of a much-coveted trinket. Earthlings live in blissful ignorance of the alien infestation, thanks to the MIBs, who erase all evidence of ETs, and erase the memories of all witnesses.

Deftly directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (*Get Shorty*), *Men In Black* is a breezy little comedy cleverly disguised as a big sci-fi adventure, a hipper, cooler *Ghostbusters* that trades on our mania for paranoia. Overstuffed with special effects and big stunts, *Men In Black* also brims with winking pop culture references (Isaac Mizrahi and Sylvester Stallone are both aliens!) that poke fun at both science fact and fantasy while explaining a whole lot of weird things, like microwave ovens. *Men In Black* is a slick, stylish, poker-faced barrage of cultural silliness mixed with slapstick comedy and cartoonish action. It posits a world where aliens are generally a friendly, likable bunch, far from the menacing, abducting, orifice-probing greys of modern legend -- these aliens, like other immigrants, aren't here to undermine governments, morals or economic systems, they aren't here for our women, and they aren't especially interested in amateur proctology. They want jobs, cars and Air Jordan sneakers, just like everybody else.

Jones is dead-on perfect as the deadpan, coolly professional K. Smith plays J with a familiar cocky swagger and goofy bewilderment. Together, they make a classic old cop/young cop, straight cop/wild cop, straight arrow/loose cannon team, but with a twist. Smith is a smart-alecky goofball who winds up playing straight man to Jones as he steals every scene, never revealing the tongue in his cheek. Linda Fiorentino is smart and funny as Dr. Laurel Weaver, the coroner who notices something is amiss when dead aliens land on her slab. As top MIB Zed, Rip Torn, who always seems on the verge of an outburst, remains collected and nonchalant even as the world is on the verge of annihilation. A ginger tabby plays a pivotal role in saving the planet, not unexpectedly.

*Men In Black* is a smart little comedy painted on a galaxy-sized canvas. The sets are huge, the stunts are huge, the aliens are huge, but the idea is rather slight, a tasty little nut in the center of a gigantic box of eye candy. *Men In Black* is enjoyable and entertaining through and through, right up to a devilishly twisted final scene that is both thought-provoking and smile-inducing.