Flight represents a kind of return to live action movies for director Robert Zemeckis after more than a decade exploring the new world of motion-capture animation. The last time he had a real actor on screen – Tom Hanks in Castaway – the film started with a plane crash. It seems Zemeckis felt he could do better, for this also starts with a plane crash so well-realised, so edge-of-your-seat spectacular that it may have you thinking about reaching up for the oxygen mask.
An American domestic flight suffers a mechanical fault and goes into a heart-stopping nosedive. In a manner that beggars belief, its improbably named pilot, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), saves the day. However, Whip is no Chesley Sullenberger, the real-life pilot who ditched his plane on the Hudson in 2009, saving everyone on board. He's an alcoholic, albeit a highly functional one, who boarded his ill-fated plane intoxicated, having also taken a few lines of cocaine to snap him into action. Thus the film is not a celebration of heroism, but a darker account of a man fighting his demons.
Unfortunately, as the film progresses, the handling of the plot becomes increasingly laboured. Films about alcoholics, like alcoholics themselves, tend to become repetitive. Scriptwriter John Gatins also makes the mistake of focusing on Whip's attempt to stay out of jail rather than the complex moral questions he's initially posed: is Whip's skill and nerve under pressure any less commendable because he was high? Should he be the fall guy for a faulty plane? Is he a hero or villain? This isn't half as thought-provoking as it should have been.
Thankfully, the film has Washington making the most of the best role he's had since his Oscar-winning turn in Training Day 12 years ago, since when he's spent far too much time slumming it in action movies. I'm happy to say he's back. Washington relishes his flawed character, makes him charismatic, pathetic and comic in equal measure. If the film's narrative enters its own tailspin after the crash, the actor keeps it in flight.
Like many Belgian films, Bullhead defies description. It's a crime drama, but with the unconventional subject of the "bovine hormone mafia". Its lead character (Rust And Bone's impressive Matthias Schoenaerts) injects himself with hormones too, to try to compensate for the crushing of his testicles as a child, although the affect has been to turn a vulnerable man into a brute. The film has comedy, love, pathos and violence, often in the same scene. Director Michaël R Roskam may have problems balancing his disparate elements, but deserves full marks for originality and keeping us guessing where the film will end up.