It’s been 12 years since Robert Zemeckis delivered “Cast Away,” his last live-action film. Now, the director, who’s been immersed in the creation of motion-capture flicks like “Beowulf,” returns with another close-cropped character study that begins with a plane crash and charts a man’s survival. Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a hotshot, hard-living airline pilot, who often gets behind the yoke hungover, but on his game nonetheless. On one particularly cloudy morning-after, a half-drunken Whip must take control of a doomed plane, strategically flying it upside down before crashing it in a field, saving all but six lives in the process.
Written by John Gatins, “Flight” begins as an action spectacle, but that’s just act one of this daring studio movie, which deftly shape-shifts into a legal-drama-cum-addict-antihero’s tale. Whip is quickly regarded as a hero, but it’s soon learned that he had booze and cocaine in his system, launching an investigation into whether or not all lives would have been saved had he been lucid. With the help of a shady lawyer (Don Cheadle) and a union cohort (Bruce Greenwood), Whip must steer his way through a new crisis while wrestling ruthless demons.
Playing an alcoholic whose behaviors are as genuine as his work life is fascinating, Washington gives his best performance in years, bringing to painful, unglamorized life a character begging for histrionic treatment. Anyone who’s known an addict will see that person in Whip, whose spiritual plight is perfectly meshed with the crash’s tricky aftermath. (It’s also worth noting that Whip’s race is a refreshing non-issue, hopefully pointing toward more prestige dramas that just happen to have leading stars of color.)
A romance with a recovered addict (Kelly Reilly) doesn’t work as well as “Flight’s” surrounding parts, but it does provide some perspective for Whip, who at least needs to see that his brand of misery has an escape hatch. With screw-tightening tension, the film boils down to whether or not Whip will reach for the door, and the process yields great dramatic rewards for the viewer. Soaring rewards, you might say.
Three-and-a-half reels out of four
Opens tomorrow at area theaters
Sure, it may feel too soon to dive in to a reboot of a decade-old franchise, and “The Amazing Spider-Man” may, ultimately, be an unnecessary cash cow, but the cast of this new vision makes it worth a look. Andrew Garfield is a great successor to Tobey Maguire’s web-slinging title, and Emma Stone makes a killer Gwen Stacy, who steps in for Mary Jane Watson this time around. Playing the villainous Lizard is the underrated Rhys Ifans, who caps off the ensemble of a winning bit of super heroic escapism.
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