AIR FORCE ONE
**/**** Image B+ Sound A Commentary B-
starring Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Wendy Crewson, Paul Guilfoyle
screenplay by Andrew W. Marlowe
directed by Wolfgang Petersen
****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras C+
starring Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her
screenplay by Nick Schenk
directed by Clint Eastwood
by Ian Pugh In Wolfgang Petersen's Air Force One, a band of Soviet ex-soldiers (whose leader is played by Gary Oldman, in full Boris Badenov mode) hijacks the President's personal aircraft and in the process facilitates a double-dose of old-fashioned, flag-waving cinematic convention for the good old U.S. of A., just a few short years before 9/11 would fuck up that whole dynamic. The film is nothing more than a dying gasp of Cold War good-versus-evil nostalgia, complete with a no-nonsense Commander-in-Chief impossible to dislike or defy. Harrison Ford is cast as the beloved President/Vietnam vet/all-around ass-kicker, who establishes a stern anti-terrorism decree shortly before literally becoming the one to see his policies through. (He was easily American cinema's most ridiculous angelic-politician fantasy until Petersen outdid himself with Poseidon's New York mayor/firefighter/super-patriot.) Nothing really matters in this scenario, and nothing really has to matter: not the reasons for the hijacking (something to do with commie dictator Jürgen Prochnow and Kazakhstan--almost ten years before Borat established that country as the former Soviet territory no one in the West knows anything about), nor the White House staffers executed during the hijack. It's all pretext for Ford saving his family and the proverbial day.
The movie wants very badly for you to describe it to your friends in the most black-and-white of terms: Ford is the all-American goodie-goodie (he loves football and depends on red, white, and blue to determine which wire should be cut in that ever-reliable wire-cutting ceremony); Oldman is the communist baddie; and both teams shoot at each other for an hour-and-a-half before the titular plane crashes into the sea in a special-effects spectacular. Air Force One is so incredibly high-concept that it actually transcends cliché as a film that has been tailored to meet your specific filmgoing needs--but it somehow ends up being monumentally boring anyway. "Harrison Ford is the President of the United States," the ads screamed; what else do you need to know? More importantly, where do you go from there? Ford is, after all, playing James (or does he go by Jack?) Marshall, a name and personality so dedicatedly generic that you're left with no choice but to think of him as President Harrison Ford--the star's last hurrah to this end, I think, before he became too old for this shit and summarily reduced his acting repertoire to a mumble and a growl. (The famous/infamous snarl of "Get off my plane!" had to be the tipping point: It's a moment of such extreme self-awareness that it would send just about anyone into decrepit obsolescence.) The whole movie is innocuous enough to pass through you with minimal damage, but I'll be damned if you can't place it firmly on a timeline tracing the devolution of the modern action film--culminating in the current Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, perhaps the least cinematic movie ever made. It's this idea that, as long as you deliver the essentials of what a genre is supposed to embody, you don't have to position them in any way that could possibly distinguish the end-product from its forebears.
It's a natural progression from "Get off my plane" to "Get off my lawn," from exciting young hero to dinosaur--and you can't pretend that those two commands carry the same weight. Gran Torino also casts an aging actor in an excessively-familiar role, i.e., Clint Eastwood as a recently-widowed old man, coughing blood into his hand and trying to make amends before he shuffles off this mortal coil. Yet this film is so tailored to who Eastwood is and what he stands for that it's impossible to separate the character from the actor. As crotchety Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, Eastwood clearly regards himself as an obsolete relic, an unnecessary reminder of Old Hollywood--though at the same time, he knows the public still regards him as the big man with the big gun who will soothe our anger at society's ills when it becomes too much to bear. Maybe it's a little too facile to say that Gran Torino is to Dirty Harry what Unforgiven was to Eastwood's Leone years (the picture undeniably takes the place of a theoretical Dirty Harry 6, and was once rumoured as such), but the stakes are arguably higher here, since Harry Callahan has long stood the test of time as an inappropriate icon, a screaming psychopath forever misinterpreted as a symbol of justified violence in the name of some abstract morality. Although Gran Torino may conclude with Unforgiven's identical assertion that killing a man is a hell of a thing, the modern--and, moreover, suburban--setting does an even better job of trashing the antiquated romanticism of filmic vengeance.
The plot is cake. Isolated from the rest of his family, the unapologetically racist Walt eventually warms to the Hmong family next door as their nervous son, Thao (Bee Vang), is terrorized by the local Hmong gang, which is looking to draft him. The supporting cast is almost uniformly terrible--promising amateurs, at best, severely outmatched by what may be Eastwood's brilliant farewell performance. And the metaphors are painfully obvious: Everyone knows who and what Walt's beloved Gran Torino represents. But the issues at hand are more important than the sum of Gran Torino's parts. Doubtful there's a more pregnant image in Eastwood's career than the one that sees him curling his hand into the shape of a pistol and "firing" at his antagonizers with the power of puffed-up machismo--a power that is ultimately revealed as an empty gesture once put to the test. Still, it's not about an enlightened Walt bringing about racial harmony, either, because the funeral procession that ends the film draws a pretty clear-cut line of suspicion between the different cultures and parties now involved in Walt's life. (Indeed, its inevitable invocation of the cross--another call-back to Dirty Harry--offers an interesting assertion that Christ's death only served to further accentuate the sociopolitical divide.) At its core, Gran Torino is about acknowledging who you are and what you've done with your life in the vague hope of leaving a positive legacy behind. The virtues of hard work, loving your friends and family, being a good neighbour...did you follow those tenets, and are people going to remember you for it? The simple elegance with which this particular tale is told is almost too much to bear.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Air Force One docks on Sony Blu-ray in a fittingly dated 2.40:1, 1080p transfer: The heavy grain and ubiquitous use of deep blues combine with an ineffable haze to offer an uncanny portrait of 1997 film stock/aesthetics. Methinks the movie was never intended for HiDef scrutiny, although this release is undoubtedly definitive. The English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is meanwhile perfectly balanced, with dialogue and sound effects coming in clear as a bell and transparently engulfing the viewer. The only special feature is a director's commentary recycled from the 1998 DVD, wherein Petersen and moderator Michael Coleman are primarily interested in discussing the technical aspects of the film (surprise, surprise) and the surprisingly large role that then-President Clinton played in the production. A genial conversation--one that's worth whiling away an afternoon over, I'm not so sure. Trailers for "Damages: The Complete First Season" and The International cue up on startup, while The Devil's Own, Lakeview Terrace, Vantage Point, Casino Royale, Rocky Balboa, xXx, and 88 Minutes previews can be found under a separate menu.
Warner shepherds Gran Torino to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p presentation. The transfer is faithful to the velvety textures favoured by Eastwood DP du jour Tom Stern and sharp besides, if somewhat overfiltered. Before complaining that the image can get overwhelmingly dark (those climactic final scenes are a strain to see), it's important to remember that Eastwood learned at the feet of Bruce Surtees, one of the two cinematographers of the '70s to earn the sobriquet "The Prince of Darkness" due to his penchant for shooting in low-lighting conditions without a net. And for what it's worth, the blacks are reproduced on this platter with a richness and depth (as well as sufficient nuance--true "crush" is rare) far beyond the capabilities of standard definition. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio is nicely atmospheric, albeit a bit too quiet at points--appropriate for a quiet film, of course, yet I thought the dialogue got swallowed up here and there. On the Special Features menu, the BD-exclusive "The Eastwood Way" (19 mins., HD) touches on the film's origins and its acquaintance with Hmong culture and briefly profiles the less experienced cast members. Unfortunately, interviews with them paint Gran Torino as precisely the kind of knee-jerk feel-good treacle that it isn't, but I have a feeling that's because so many good vibes were traveling through everyone during the making of this picture. Good to know, at least, that Eastwood can provide a fun experience on set. "Manning the Wheel" (4 mins., HD) looks at Man's relationship to car culture, especially as it relates to Walt and his Gran Torino, and "Gran Torino: More Than a Car" (4 mins., HD) rehashes much of the same material from the perspective of the patrons at the Woodward Dream Cruise ("an annual vintage car event") in Detroit. A link to Warner BD Live wraps things up. Opening the disc is a Blu-ray promo that at least congratulates you on taking the HiDef leap instead of goading you into buying the player, um, again. Housed inside the slipcovered keepcase is a digital copy of the film on a disc with a rather plain label. Originally published: July 16, 2009.