‘Plane’ Review: Gerard Butler Action Saga Remains in the Upright Locked Position

Kenneth Rexach/Lionsgate

Everyone has bad work days. Sometimes there’s just too much to do and not enough time to do it all; sometimes your coworkers can drive you up a wall; sometimes you have to land a commercial airliner somewhere in the Philippines because a lightning strike has rendered your plane flightless.

That last example is the plight of Trailblazer Airlines pilot Brodie Torrance (no relation to Jack, we assume), Gerard Butler’s character in the new action-thriller “Plane,” directed by Jean-François Richet (“The Emperor of Paris”). When his flight 199 goes down over the Sulu Sea, the grizzled captain teams up with an unlikely ally — the extradited murderer sitting at the back of his plane — to help his passengers and crew navigate a treacherous island. What follows is a ho-hum fight for survival peppered with carnage and, occasionally, pathos.

Torrance is a good-humored, grizzled Scotsman. He has, as every action hero must, a dead wife. He hopes to make his flight home in time to celebrate the new year with his adult daughter, Daniela (Haleigh Hekking, “Action Royale”). He is joined on the flight by his co-pilot, a mild-mannered family man named Sam Dele (Yoson An, “Mulan”), head flight attendant Bonnie (Daniella Pineda, “Jurassic World: Dominion”) and 14 passengers. The passengers are more or less interchangeable, save for two irascible bald men (one American, one British), two young female tourists in skimpy clothing and the afore-mentioned murderer.

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The latter is Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter, “Luke Cage”), who remains quiet and stoic until, after landing on the island, he uses his military background to help Torrance and the passengers escape an island full of hostage-hungry thugs. As Torrance and Gaspare battle the thugs and their leader, Junmar (stuntman Evan Dane Taylor), Trailblazer Airlines relies on renegade corporate goon David Scarsdale (Tony Goldwyn) and his network of mercenaries to recover the flight.

J.P. Davis (“The Contractor”) and action novelist Charles Cumming have stuffed this script to the gills with multiple, simultaneously unfolding stories, yet it still feels insubstantial. This is in large part because the film’s ensemble of characters is so flimsily established. The men in this film flit on- and off-screen with little to distinguish them, beyond their professions and faces. (The women with speaking roles are so rare that they are inherently memorable.) It is shocking to discover, by the end credits, that all these men — the mercenaries, Junmar’s lackeys, the whiny passengers — even had names.

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The passengers are particularly trifling characters, grounded solely by Torrance’s determination to save them. When trouble befalls them, it’s hard to care much, because there’s so little personality there to invest in. It’s even unclear why Torrance is so hellbent on protecting them, beyond his basic obligation as a compassionate human being. Does he have a savior complex because of his wife’s passing? Maybe, but this film isn’t even interested in getting you to learn said wife’s name, much less how she died.

Gaspare likewise remains mysterious, beyond his utility as a killer. This makes his actions essentially meaningless, because his motivations are vague at best. The one upside of his flat characterization is that he’s something of a foil to Torrance, thus lending our protagonist more depth. Refreshingly, Torrance is brutal and athletic, but he’s no killing machine. He is visibly shaken after seeing a thug die for the first time, even though said man was trying to choke him to death. He remains humane, even pausing to cry in a moment of overwhelm. It’s a good look on a modern action hero, and on Butler in particular.

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Otherwise, “Plane” hits all the usual genre movie beats. The paint-by-numbers score and cinematography offer some tension but little excitement. The guns get bigger, the stakes get higher, Junmar’s gang shows a few unlucky passengers just how bad they can be; all hope seems lost, until it isn’t. One guy asks another, “That’s your plan?,” and his compatriot responds, “You got a better one?” –not once, but twice.

Ultimately, “Plane” manages to be both overstuffed and undercooked, frenzied yet lethargic, with needless exposition like Torrance’s nationality (like Butler himself, he speaks with an unmistakable Scottish burr) and past professional misbehavior eating up precious screen time. The few details we do get are often more puzzling than clarifying. For instance, the two young women traveling together, who seem like very close friends, apparently hail from different countries. The rules of plane technology at use in this film — actually, the rules of technology in general — are completely opaque.

As an action movie about a plane goes, there is certainly action, and there is certainly a plane. There’s no reason to expect awards-worthy content here. But “Plane” would be less mind-numbing if it took itself either a little less or a lot more seriously. Maybe this film would feel more gratifying if it focused on a few memorable characters and put them in real danger, or if it threw decorum out the window and went for some gonzo kills. As it is, “Plane” offers you what nearly every middling airline experience does: peanuts.

“Plane” opens in U.S. theaters Jan. 13 via Lionsgate.