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Passenger 57

An action thriller from the Joel Silver school of Big Bang filmmaking, PASSENGER 57 smashes on the runway, an inflated cartoon of excess without a modicum of charm, wit or sense. John Cutter (Wesley Snipes) is a snippy and imperious airline security expert (a friend tells him "You'd make a hell of a Republican") who finds himself aboard a flight to Los Angeles with the sneering and equally imperious Charles Rane (Bruce Payne), the latter being escorted by FBI agents to face terrorist bombing charges. Quite understandably, Rane wants to get off the plane before it lands in California and, while Cutter is in the bathroom, Rane's camouflaged cohorts take their cue and commandeer the aircraft. It is then up to Cutter and attractive airline attendant Marti Slayton (Alex Datcher) to sneak into the aircraft's underbelly and release the plane's fuel supply, forcing the plane to land on a small airstrip in Louisiana. Before landing, however, Cutter is kicked out of the plane onto the runway by one of Rane's henchmen, where two bonehead Southern deputies mistake him for one of the bad guys and arrest him. As prisoners are released after the plane's landing, Rane ducks out the back way with two of his fellow terrorists. He strolls around a county fair, located conveniently nearby, where Cutter, having straightened out the comedy of errors with the local sheriff, stalks him, prompting an old-fashioned shoot-em-up. Rane's henchmen are killed and he's recaptured but he negotiates himself back onto the plane and it soon taxies down the runway with the remaining passengers. Confounding Rane, Cutter hops aboard and, after a hostage-taking stand-off and the obligatory killing of innocent bystanders, Cutter smacks Rane out of the airplane, GOLDFINGER-style. After the plane lands again, Marti and Cutter walk away from the bedlam to visit the fair. PASSENGER 57 plays like a film Bruce Willis turned down. Incorporating elements of the DIE HARD blockbusters and the LETHAL WEAPON trilogy, the film has a battle-scarred familiarity, the deaths and explosions creating an unpleasant sense of deja vu in the viewer. Director Kevin Hooks knows how to press the action buttons, achieving the rhythm and look of the major 1980s action thrillers without the grit and panache that made those films exciting. Hooks invokes terrorists, plane crashes, gunfire and an ever-increasing body count like an old Nintendo game--the elements are all there, but viewers have played it one time too many. The plot contrivances of PASSENGER 57 make the Zucker brothers' AIRPLANE look like a beacon of narrative economy--every plot point in David Loughery and Dan Gordon's derivative screenplay is set up like a sketch on "Saturday Night Live." Among the numerous unanswerable questions: why does a SWAT team decide to surprise Rane at his plastic surgeon's and how does he know they'll be bursting through the operating room door at exactly 6 p.m.? What is the chance in the real world of an airline security officer finding himself on an airplane teeming with unidentified terrorists? Why does Rane, instead of sneaking away after landing the airplane, decide to stroll to the local county fair, thereby allowing Cutter to hunt him down? PASSENGER 57 offers the rare opportunity in American films for a mainstream audience to cheer for a black action hero, but this novel concept is immediately subverted by an inherent racism. Despite having Snipes mouth some hip catch-phrases ("Do you ever play roulette? Always bet on black"), most of the film reflects stereotypical perceptions of African-Americans: Snipes proudly tells his friend that he was patted down by an airport security woman because he is more physically endowed; he screams in pop-eyed mock terror as a hijacker tries to force him back to his seat; the sheriff's deputies arrest him at the airport because they cannot conceive of Snipes being a high-level security officer. The racism may be implicit, but it is certainly simmering below the surface. This carries over into Wesley Snipes's performance, as if he knew what was happening but had to carry out his contract. Snipes, who looks like he sucked on a lemon before each take, doesn't play John Cutter as a character with an attitude--he's an actor with an attitude. The sarcastic, defensive and strident Cutter's favorite catchphrase is "I'm the best," and this without a hint of irony or humor. This guy means it. PASSENGER 57 is a lazy, late entry in the action thriller sweepstakes that lacks excitement or interesting characters and has an undertone of sleaze. The nasty, cynical attitude of the film might best be summed up in a speech made by Rane to the frightened hostages on the hijacked airplane: "We will now continue with the remainder of the flight. If you don't want to wear your seat belts you don't have to." It's just a shame that movie theaters can't sell flight insurance for the rocky ride of PASSENGER 57. (Excessive violence, profanity.)