Monday, March 12, 2012

Heavy Action: Passenger 57 / Drop Zone

by Patrick Bromley
Always bet on black.

Passenger 57 (1992)

Last week, I talked about Under Siege and Sudden Death, two of the better Die Hard imitators to appear in the wake of the best action movie ever made. But the stream of rip-offs didn't end there, instead trickling down until it had reached perhaps its silliest iteration: the Die-Hard-on-an-airplane movie Passenger 57. It's the seat number that changes all the rules.

Wesley Snipes stars as John Cutter, a former police officer still haunted by the murder of his wife. He's off the force and works now as a security adviser to airlines when he's offered a job by his old friend Sly Delvecchio (Tom Sizemore, who seems like a slimy villain even when he's playing a good guy best friend part) heading up an anti-terrorism unit for an airline in Los Angeles. So, Cutter boards flight 163 to start his new career -- but, wouldn't you know it, the flight is also carrying renowned terrorist Charles Rayne, who seizes control of the airplane with the help of his crew and holds the passengers hostage in exchange for his freedom. There's just ONE THING THEY DIDN'T COUNT ON...
For a movie that's basically Die Hard on a plane, not much of Passenger 57 takes place on the actual plane. There's a fairly long setup to get Wesley Snipes on board, followed by about 30 minutes of plane action. Then the plane lands (SPOILERS) and Snipes gets off so the movie can become Die Hard at a carnival for about 10 minutes. Then the bad guy gets off, too. Then the bad guy gets back on, and then Snipes gets back on so he can be Passenger 57 again. The the bad guy (SPOILERS) gets off the plane one last time, only this time it's in mid-flight.

Despite all of this on-again, off-again business (it's like a Kate Hudson movie, but with way more face kicking), Passenger 57 is smart to not try and take place entirely on a single plane. The formula of the Die Hard knock off was already stretching credibility at this point, and the idea of "Die Hard on a plane" seemed to be stretching it to its breaking point -- there just isn't enough physical space to make that scenario work (though, to be fair, Executive Decision does a pretty awesome job, but that's a very different movie and not really a Die Hard imitation). In that respect, the movie is pretty smart to keep things moving around. It couldn't have sustained its full running time just by having Cutter alternate between hiding in steerage and hiding in the bathroom. Even with all the extra carnival-based padding, the movie only lasts 84 minutes. That's also one of its best qualities.

Part of the downfall of Passenger 57 is that the villain, played by Bruce Payne (of No Contest II and Highlander: Endgame), is such a weak imitation of Hans Gruber that he doesn't give Wesley Snipes anything to go up against. Not really, anyway. He appears to have been cast because he is British -- the sole resource he falls back on throughout the entirety of the movie. He's cold and deadpan and speaks with an accent, and that's supposed to be enough to make him seem like a threat. Unfortunately, neither Payne nor his character seem to be having any fun, and that's one of the requirements of being a great action movie villain; you don't have to ham it up (though many do), but you have to seem like you enjoy being evil and or/dangerous. Payne approaches his villain as though making him cold is enough to make him scary. Turns out it just makes him boring.

And, yet, because of his extreme Europeanness, his blonde hair and his blue eyes, there exists a kind of Aryan tension between Rayne and Cutter, and it's that undercurrent of race that sets the movie ever-so-slightly apart from other action movies of the era. It has an energy and a point of view reminiscent of the blaxploitation films of the '70s. In fact, that's pretty much exactly what the movie comes close to being in its best moments: a cheaper, cruder version of a big-budget Hollywood success, only this time with a black actor. I don't think that's what Warner Bros. was looking for, of course, so director Kevin Hooks had to sneak a lot of it in. He didn't always do a great job, though, especially when Rayne pretty much comes right out and says a line to Cutter like "That's the American way, isn't You're used to being taken advantage of." It's amazing how much that "brother," thrown in almost as an afterthought by the character, immediately makes the scene uncomfortable by explicitly acknowledging what was previously only implied: Snipes isn't just John Cutter, passenger 57. He's John Cutter, Black Man, trapped in a system that marginalizes and mistrusts him. What could be seen as just another arrogant baiting attempt by Rayne is actually an admission of the entire film's subtext.

The racial tension exists elsewhere in the film, too. When Cutter first gets off the plane (on again, off again, on again), he's captured by some good old boy sheriffs and eventually held at gunpoint. It's difficult to watch a bunch of rednecks rough up and point guns at Wesley Snipes and not read the scene as anything but a commentary not just on post-Rodney King America (cops versus black man), but on race relations dating back to the pre-(and, let's face, post) Civil Rights South. Hooks, a guy who's done an insane amount of TV work (as well as directed Strictly Business and Fled), is too often timid to fully embrace Passenger 57's blaxploitation roots; we get hints here and there, but every time the movie backs down and goes back to being a generic mainstream crowd pleaser.

Undermining the race angle somewhat is the fact that the leader of the good old boys, Chief Biggs (Ernie Lively, Blake's dad), isn't necessarily a bigot -- he's just a stooge. We pretty quickly figure out that Biggs isn't giving Cutter a hard time because of prejudice, but because he's a complete dummy. The character makes Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason's character in Die Hard, who Roger Ebert once criticized existed only to be wrong) look like Columbo; he's literally wrong about everything and as stupid as he can possibly be. He's also the source of the movie's tone deaf "humor," another big mistake on the part of screenwriters David Loughery and Dan Gordon -- they make a bunch of the supporting characters "funny," which not only undermines their credibility as a threat but also takes away opportunities for Snipes to get laughs.

But Biggs and the redneck cops aren't just lame because they're not funny. They're lame because they're such a major obstacle in the movie. In Die Hard, John McClane constantly had to think fast to sneak around undetected, picking off terrorists and preventing a disaster. He was working against insurmountable odds, and it worked because he was the only guy who could do it. The problems John Cutter faces aren't really caused by the terrorists, but by the people on the ground who don't believe him and prevent him from doing his job -- he's a victim of bureaucracy more than villainy. Again, it's an interesting exploration of racial struggles of the time, but it sure ain't Die Hard. Cutter isn't dealing with physical threats and obstacles so much as red tape, which, while great as a metaphor, doesn't really satisfy as an action movie.

More than anything, though, Passenger 57 serves as an introduction to Wesley Snipes as an action hero. Previously known for more dramatic work (including a couple of Spike Lee joints and for playing my brother's keeper, Nino motherfucking Brown), Snipes' casting in the movie seemed as novel at the time as Bruce Willis in Die Hard. His ability to handle himself in the fight scenes was kind of a revelation, leading to several other sucky action movies like Drop Zone (more on that in a second) and Money Train (and one turn as bad guy Simon Phoenix in Demolition Man, which is awesome) before Blade solidified him as a legitimate kicker of asses. VAMPIRE ASSES. It also solidified him as a crazy person, and between that and his steadfast belief that he should not be accountable to the IRS, Snipes eventually went the way of Seagal and Van Damme, appearing in an endless series of disposable, disappointing DTV action movies. Something's gotta pay the bills.

Drop Zone (1994)

Flawed as Passenger 57 may be, John Badham's Drop Zone is way worse, mostly because it's utterly generic. Here is a movie that calls upon none of Wesley Snipes' talents, either as an action hero or as a movie star, and which doesn't even have the decency to acknowledge its own latent racial messages. It's straightforward and it's stupid.
Snipes plays U.S. Marshal Pete Nessip, who, along with his brother Theo Huxtable is charged with escorting white collar criminal Michael Jeter (Mr. Noodle RIP) across country to a new prison. During the flight, a group of criminals led by Gary Busey kidnap Jeter and skydive out of the plane. While trying to rescue a little girl from getting sucked out of the plane, Pete's brother (who was already shot) dies. So, Pete does what anybody would: he turns in his badge and goes in search of the guys that killed his brother, leading him to a group of skydivers near D.C. Now, Pete must infiltrate the highly insulated skydiving community to catch Busey and his band of thieves before he can use Jeter's computer hacking skills to sell off the names of every DEA agent in the country.

Drop Zone is kind of like the anti-Passenger 57, in that it finds Snipes not taking on the establishment, but instead attempting to integrate into it. He's an outsider to the exclusive skydiving world (which, incidentally, is entirely white), which has all kinds of stupid traditions and its own bar at which all the skydivers drink and have toasts when one of them dies -- it's a screenwriter's made up version of a world he knows nothing about and hopes that the audience knows even less. But instead of kicking some people in the face and demanding they tell him what the fuck he wants to know, Snipes has to hang out with these people and learn to skydive. There's even one guy, Swoop (Kyle Secor), who won't even talk to Snipes until they've "jumped together," because this is a terrible screenplay. I guess it's supposed to be some sort of satisfying character arc when Swoop finally deems Snipes worthy of conversation by the end of the movie. John Cutter would have kicked that guy in the face. Blade would have samurai sworded him in half, height-wise. Nino Brown would have probably sold him some drugs. But Pete Nessip is thrilled that this fucking cracker is speaking to him. It's offensive.

As an action movie set in the world of skydiving, Drop Zone lives in the shadow of Point Break -- and, as someone who is a giant fucking fan of Point Break, that's a huge shadow in which to live. At the very least, that movie understood the ridiculousness of its own premise and embraced it fully, transcending it by never playing down to it and offering incredible action set pieces to compensate for a silly, silly plot. Point Break is a completely one-of-a-kind thing, and isn't the kind of movie whose success can be replicated -- or, as Drop Zone demonstrates, even imitated. Even Terminal Velocity, another skydiving action movie that came out the same year as Drop Zone, is better, because a) it stars Chuck Sheen 2) it has the self-awareness to be silly and crazy and d) it has that scene where the two guys are eating all of the mints. That's at least one more memorable thing than in all of Drop Zone.

If nothing else, Point Break had incredible aerial stunts and photography going for it, while Drop Zone has some of the worst green screen effects that 1994 had to offer. With the exception of one cool, unbroken take in which Michael Jeter does a tandem jump out of a plane, it never appears that any of the actors are anywhere but on a soundstage during the aerial sequences. Don't make a movie about skydiving and then fake all of your skydiving shots. Badly, no less.
The film has a few things going for it. It's kind of a reunion for a bunch of familiar faces from action movies: besides Snipes and Jeter (Tango & Cash), there's Yancy Butler (Hard Target), Gary Busey (Every action movie, 1987-1994), Rex Linn (Cliffhanger) and Robert LaSardo (Out for Justice). The photography is really good -- slick, polished and filled with bold, bright colors, which is an unusual look for an action movie. Hans Zimmer's guitar score is pretty cool. And there's some weird shots during the end credits of a woman doing some floating yoga positions in mid-skydive (she's hovering over a giant fan). It looks kind of like the opening of a Bond movie.

Ultimately, though, Drop Zone doesn't work as an action movie. It doesn't work as a skydiving movie. It doesn't work as a Wesley Snipes movie. Passenger 57 is a movie about a strong black man taking on a bunch of white assholes. Drop Zone is a movie about a black man trying to be one of the white assholes. I prefer the first kind.

Got a movie you'd like to see included in a future installment of Heavy Action? Let us know in the comments below.


  1. There's little to be said about these two disposable mid-90's action flicks after you Patrick. They're terribly and cheaply-made 2nd rate imitators of the genuine articles ("Die Hard" and "Point Break") but at least in "Passenger 57" (which came the same year as "Under Siege") Wesley really comes across with the screen presence of a mofo action star. Ask Jeff Speakman, whose career as an action star never took off after his debut flick, 1991's "The Perfect Weapon," showed he wasn't two of the three words in the title. :-P

    With "Passenger 57" Snipes not only passed the test, he was given a ticket to the Stallone-Segal-Norris-Arnold-etc. elite of bad-ass leading men (on 2nd rate and cheaper flicks than the others, but at least they got made and most of them made dough). Even in generic vehicles like "Boiling Point" and the "Matrix"-inspired "The Art of War" Snipes looks/feels/talks like a bad-ass, and in an action movie that's good-enough to get you halfway there. The other half is finding a director that exploits your talents (or lets you run loose with your own wild ideas) like Marco Bambrilla did letting Wesley's Simon Phoenix walk away with "Demolition Man" (which Sly didn't appreciate and put Bambrilla's directorial career on the skids). Then "Blade" happens, and you're on cloud 9 for a while until the tax man commeth. :-O

    Morale of the story: action stars, like screen beauties and atheletes, age quickly and their appeal fades. Save your pennies, and share them with Uncle Sam; you'll be freer to move around this great country of ours if you do. Otherwise its competing with a bloated Segal and an anachronistic Dolph in the DTV market.

    BTW, how does the DTV industry work now that there aren't even that many video stores to go rent movies at? There are still a few mom & pop rental stores and Blockbusters scattered around (Hollywood Video is long gone), but I can't believe the rental/purchase market today can sustain the model that made investing in cheap Segal/Lundgren/Snipes flicks profitable. Where/how exactly does DTV make its money back? Foreign sales to TV markets overseas? Just a beefed-up portfolio of as many DTV cheap movies as possible to make the entire package seem like a good investment to Netflix? Ironically the place I've been seeing the vast majority of these DTV movies take root is in the Spanish TV market. Telefutura (Univision's secondary broadcast affiliate network in the States) shows these DTV movies pratically 'round the clock most weekdays and overnights. Nothing like hearing Wesley dubbed in Spanish to appreciate what a loss it is to hear him say 'motherfucker' with masculine conviction.

    1. You just change the revenue stream from a per-sale contract to a per-viewing contract. You sell the films directly to Netflix, Hulu, or whoever with a few pennies every time someone views the product. Foreign markets will make up part of the sales as well, since the Asian market watches a fair few films that we'd never bother with. There never was that much money in Blockbuster and the like, so the change probably isn't that large.

    2. Thanks, I didn't know that distributors could do per-viewing fee contracts with suppliers (or viceversa). I also wonder if the money from premium channels like Cinemax and The Movie Channel (where these types of flicks once flourished) factors enough into the industry's economics models to matter. With streaming gaining steam I wouldn't be surprised if these non-theatrical movies stop being referred to as 'Direct to Video' (even though they're still getting released on DVD and even Blu-ray).

      'Video on Demand' (VOD) is actually a model/term that best describes the changing economics of the 'DTV' landscape. Problem is 'VOD' could be a Snipes' last action flick or Cannes-nominated art like "Melancholia." The 'DTV' term should remain to keep the action/sexy thriller-type flicks separate from the 'prestige' stuff.

  2. I haven’t seen Passenger 57 in years, but I always remember it being a fun film. When I went through a little Wesley Snipes phase it was probably my second or third favourite (way) behind Demolition Man and about on par with Rising Sun. That being said, looking through his filmography he’s been in a fair amount of dreck over the years.

    That guy Swoop in Drop Zone was a real dick; I wanted to see Wesley Snipes boot him in the face at some point.

    Also, as you mention Money Train, I watched that a couple of months back and the main thing I remember is the wardrobe. Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson wear some ridiculous clothes and hats in it; I couldn’t believe some of the stuff they had on. The 90s really was a god awful time for fashion.

  3. wayy wayy off on Bruce Payne-he MADE that movie-what the hell were you watching