FILM / Desperately trying to die hard: Adam Mars-Jones finds that the thriller Passenger 57 fails to live up to some of its predecessors

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The Independent Culture
AT A theoretically tense moment in Passenger 57 (15), the mad killer Charles Rane (Bruce Payne) - 'Rane of Terror' to you - shows the authorities at Lake Lucille airport that he's in grim earnest by ordering his underlings to throw out of the grounded plane the body of a passenger he's already heartlessly done to death.

As the body falls out of shot towards the tarmac, you can follow its progress reflected in the silvery belly of the plane, and you can see that it is in fact safely met by a large blue cushion that by rights shouldn't be there.

You don't actually see the stuntman stand up, accept the congratulations of the movie crew and set off contentedly back to his trailer, but it's still a fair old flub in the continuity department, and quite enough to make clear - if you hadn't got the message already - that Passenger 57 is not exactly on the A-list, even of action movies.

The film that Passenger 57 would like to be when it grows up is Die Hard, not most people's idea of a grown-up film in the first place. But at least Die Hard had plenty of dash, and no seams showing in the special effects. Its wisecracking hero and sardonic Brit villain were good of their kind (Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman) - even top of the line.

The hero of Passenger 57, the man who can get into places and out of places, the man who can get into the spaces between places, to lurk and pounce, to rescue and to thwart - the fly in the ointment of terrorism - is played by Wesley Snipes, who is a real actor in ways that Bruce Willis can only dream of. In other words, he does less when he kick-boxes a maniac during a plane crash than when he just stands there and delivers a line. He's overqualified.

The part he plays, John Cutter, is one of the synthetic mavericks that action films rely on these days. It's funny, a quarter of a century ago it didn't bother anyone that James Bond was a government man, of however unusual a sort, and everyone would have been shocked to learn that Sean Connery felt he needed to bivouac with the SAS to get his character right. But now it's just the reverse. Movie studios, so tightly tied to international corporations, are careful to include plenty of anti-corporate bias. So now the hero is nominally a private individual, a former airline security expert - though he seems to be on good terms with the FBI, and his small talk is certainly on the hawkish side (his philosophy of airline security is to emulate the Israelis, since they 'have never been fucked with'). Meanwhile, the actor trains extensively with special forces and paramilitary units, spending time with people who organise militia for American intelligence operations, experts in bomb-making and sabotage.

Bruce Payne plays the hero's opposite number, a villain who is a cocktail of Rickman's cool baddie from Die Hard and Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs. He's evil through and through, it's just that some of it is coldly rational evil and some of it is plain demented. So when he gives orders for the hijacked plane to take off again after refuelling, he announces drily to the terrified hostages, 'If you don't want to wear your seatbelts you don't have to.'

On the other hand, when he is in consultation with a lawyer who is unwise enough to refer to his aristocratic but warped upbringing, Rane is soon banging the man's head against the table, hissing 'Never mention my childhood]', and getting the poor man to recite 'Charles Rane is not insane, Charles Rane is not insane' a number of times before letting him go.

For a psychopath, though, he's good with people. It's never explained how he manages to get together a crack team, and it's never even hinted, come to that, how they manage to take the places of airline staff. If you put together all the film's holes in motivation and basic plotting, you'd have a single hole quite big enough to hide a jumbo jet in, for as long as you wanted it hidden.

But there they are anyway, the nerdy one and the cruel-looking one and the Native American one, and to top it all off Sabrina Ritchie, who looks remarkably like that Dennis Potter's nice Christabel from the BBC (Elizabeth Hurley), all legs, hair, patrician vowels and a pistol on the dinner tray where the steak is supposed to be.

The screenplay, by David Loughery and Dan Gordon, isn't as stupid as the story, by Stewart Raffill and Dan Gordon, which would suggest (if we delete the Dan Gordon from each side of the equation) that Loughery is responsible for the occasional wit-flicker in the script. It's infuriating all the same that the project should have an element of clip-on ethnicity, a weak current of would-be black consciousness that could have been written in at short notice to tempt a bankable star, and could easily have been altered to suit someone else. Despite the recent rise of black stars and black directors, there is still a tendency either to tie black stories to the ghetto or to have, say, Eddie Murphy take the white world by storm. There's a desperate shortage of films that don't somehow leave the races in their places, once the story is over - which is why One False Move was given such a warm welcome.

Passenger 57, though, is business as usual. At another theoretically tense moment of the story, with the psychopathic nob in control of the flight deck and the hero sabotaging the infrastructure downstairs, they have a brief confrontation on the phone. Cutter has failed to provoke a brainstorm in Rane by referring in vague terms to his childhood and background (there's never a copy of Debrett handy when you want one) so he tries a different approach. Has Rane ever played roulette, he asks. Yes, Rane says, with perhaps just a hint of unease under all the superciliousness. 'Let me give you a word of advice,' Cutter continues - and at this point the director, Harry Hook, tries one of his few self-conscious shots, moving toward Snipes' face with borrowed Spike Lee dynamism just as he says, 'always bet on black.'

This is a moment of crass enough crowd-pleasing, but the strange thing is that it doesn't lead on to anything else. It could almost have been story- boarded for inclusion in the trailer rather than the movie itself, a cynical attempt to win a black audience, and anyone who was lured to the cinema by such a trailer would feel pretty thoroughly short-changed. The closest thing in Passenger 57 to an exploration of racial attitudes is the character of a good-old-boy Southern sheriff, a satirical target as broad as his trousers, a knucklehead who thinks the crisis is going well so long as there's coffee in his cup. Even he ends up a member of the John Cutter fan club.

There have always been stupid films. Most films have always been stupid. But what is peculiarly modern is the stupid film that semaphores its knowledge of its own stupidity, as if that was charming, in a tiny detail that slips past in a moment. Last week, in Indecent Proposal, the receptionist at the estate agents where Demi Moore worked could be glimpsed reading Susan Faludi's feminist polemic Backlash. In Passenger 57, John Cutter passes the time between terrorist hijacks by brushing up on his Clausewitz. How long before we start seeing credits for Wry Book Placement Consultants? For Irony Wranglers?

(Photograph omitted)

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