Much like the doomed airliner at its heart, “Flight” is fundamentally flawed, and Denzel Washington just may be the only person alive capable of steering it clear of disaster.
After a thrilling opening that could make even the most seasoned traveler wary of flying, “Flight” turns into the story of one man’s addiction that offers little you haven’t seen in several decades’ worth of TV movies and “Afterschool Specials.”
On the morning that will change his life forever, Capt. Whip Whitaker (Washington) struggles to rise after a night of partying with a flight attendant (a very naked Nadine Velazquez).
Before even crawling out of bed, he takes a swig of beer and a hit off a joint and snorts a line of coke. After making it to the cockpit, he inhales a couple of bursts of oxygen from his emergency mask. He furtively mixes himself a screwdriver while addressing the passengers. Then he dozes off during the brief flight from Orlando, Fla., to Atlanta. He’s basically a shoplifting charge away from being sued by the Lohans for gimmick infringement.
But there’s still no one you’d rather have in the pilot’s seat during a crisis. Early in the flight, he pushes the jet near its limits to outrun a storm, but he saves his most heroic feat for last: During a mechanical failure, he rolls the plane upside down to stabilize it during a free fall before crash landing in a field.
Even though everyone agrees few if any other pilots could have saved as many lives as he did, there’s that nagging problem that he never should have been allowed anywhere near the cockpit in that condition.
“Flight” marks a welcome return to live-action for director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”), who’s spent the past 12 years focusing on motion-capture animation. But he’s betrayed by John Gatins’ (“Real Steel”) script which, aside from the moral ambiguity of Whip’s “heroism,” just doesn’t offer all that much in the way of originality.
Whip starts out calm and cocky, singing to himself, scaring the hell out of his young co-pilot (Brian Geraghty). “Nothing like a 30-knot crosswind to exercise the old sphincter muscle,” he declares during a burst of turbulence.
But as the consequences of his actions begin weighing on him — his impaired state has him facing life in prison — Whip turns desperate. Unwaveringly unrepentant, he’s soon asking colleagues to lie for him. The only time he’s not trying to cover his backside is when it’s hanging out the back of his hospital gown.
While recovering from his injuries — with his face bandaged, Washington does some powerful emoting using only one teary, bloodstained eye — he meets a heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) sneaking a smoke in the stairwell.
Sensing a kindred spirit who could accompany him on his downward spiral — her addiction already has taken her from a career as a photographer to various jobs as a masseuse to sometimes washing hair in a salon — Whip gets more than he bargained for when he lets her move in. The moral of the story: When the track-marked, knuckle-tattooed junkie you’re sleeping with tells you to get help, seek it.
As Whip’s best friend, a ponytailed John Goodman blows into his brief scenes like a force of nature. Much like during his time in “Argo,” “Flight” is a jarringly different, and better, movie whenever he’s onscreen.
Goodman really should capitalize on this higher wavelength he’s now occupying by stockpiling random scenes that can be shoehorned into other movies down the road. They certainly couldn’t be any more out of place there than they are in “Flight,” which is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Washington’s movie.
His Whip isn’t the fun, showy, Nicolas Cage-in-“Leaving Las Vegas” drunk. Instead, Whip’s sullen, unapologetic and frustrating in the way to which anyone who’s ever known an addict can relate. It’s one of the more honest depictions of alcoholism you’ll see as Whip’s confidence and magnetism slowly fade away.
In the hands of any other actor, though, it’s doubtful the role would be sparking talk of yet another Oscar nomination.
Because, ultimately, “Flight” just never takes off the way it should.
Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.