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Pushing Tin

Welcome to the high-pressure, over-caffeinated world of air traffic controllers, where a momentary lapse in concentration can cause a mid-air collision, and a career-ending nervous breakdown is always right around the corner: fascinating stuff, until the plot kicks in. Then it's contrived, meandering, clichéd and just plain preposterous. Nick "The Zone" Falzone (John Cusack) is the king of Queens TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control), until Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton) blows into town with his wife, Mary (Angelina Jolie). Mary's snotty, sexpot ways alienate the rest of the traffic controllers' wives, and Russell doesn't really fit in with Nick's crowd, a hard-drinking, high strung bunch of boys' boys (that goes double for Tina [Vicki Lewis], the only woman on the crew): Russell's got some wacky, half-Native American zen thing going, sitting at his console with an eagle feather tucked behind his ear, falling asleep in the car while Nick drives like a screaming maniac, shooting hoops with a preternatural cool that sets everyone on edge and riles Nick something fierce. The two get into an on-the-job pissing contest that can only end badly and does. Mike Newell's follow-up to the stunning DONNIE BRASCO is all atmosphere and no real story, at least no story that feels worth wading through the technoprattle and domestic drama. TV sitcom veterans Glen and Les Charles (their credits include Cheers, M*A*S*H and Taxi) based their script on a non-fiction piece published in the New York Times Magazine, apparently without having taken into account the finite nature of motion picture story telling. They're good on loose-limbed joshing, cute character bits, and smarty-mouth exchanges. But when it comes to making the characters' behavior make sense, or getting some solid narrative going and keeping it on track, they seem lost.