There was a time, not too long ago, when 'Die Hard' was its own genre.
After the success of the first two 'Die Hard' movies, if you wanted your action script to get made, or if you wanted to sell your finished action movie to an audience, all you had to do was say, "Well, it's 'Die Hard' on a…"
Sometimes this was a good thing - 'Speed,' after all, was 'Die Hard' on a bus. Ditto the colossally underrated Jean-Claude Van Damme action thriller 'Sudden Death,' which was 'Die Hard' at a hockey game. Of course, it also gave us movies like 'Daylight,' which saw Sylvester Stallone in the middle of 'Die Hard' in a tunnel, and the god-awful sequel to 'Speed,' 'Speed 2: Cruise Control,' which was 'Die Hard' on a cruise ship.
It's within this cozy sub-genre that we find 'Air Force One,' Wolfgang Petersen's take on 'Die Hard' on Air Force One. (David Letterman, at the time of the film's release, was fond of calling it 'The Ass-Kicking President.') The film opens with a tactical military operation which results in the capture of the terrorism supporting leader of Kazakhstan. Next wee see the President of the United States (Harrison Ford) giving a speech in Moscow that outlines the United States' zero tolerance approach to terrorism. Soon after, while flying home on his famous jet, the President finds himself at the mercy of Russian terrorists. That's pretty much the whole movie.
The cast is rounded out by an impressive assortment of character actors. Gary Oldman, true to form, plays the slimy Russian hijacker. William H. Macy is a member of the president's cabinet (on the plane), Glenn Close is the Vice President (on terra firma), Dean Stockwell is the Secretary of Defense (with Close on terra firma), and Jurgen Prochnow plays General Ivan Radek, the baddie whose capture sets the events of the film in motion.
Director Wolfgang Petersen is a talented dude, there's no doubt about that. 'Air Force One' forgoes the choppy, cut-cut-cut style of the time, instead going for a more leisurely pace with longer sustained shots. The overall effect is elegant but can also be quite draggy (the search for the President's escape pod goes on forever, especially because, if the President wasn't on the plane, the movie would be pretty much over). Quite frankly, while this more luxuriant style is refreshing, it also, in the age of Jason Bourne and '24,' seems almost impossibly slow and uninvolving.
It's not a bad movie, per se, but it's not exactly good either. And man oh man have effects come a long way since this thing came out. Not only do the fighter jets move through the air with all the realism of an X-wing, but there's a climactic crash on the water that looks so phony that I had to shriek out, "That's why they need to bring models back!"
Besides the pacing and effects issue, the movie also seems incredibly dated from a political point of view; 'Air Force One' is very, very Clinton era. It's almost inconceivable to think that a movie like this could have been made during the George W. Bush era - a youngish, charming President who has a steadfast overseas policy stance but is a warm family man, one who pretty much everyone loves. If something like this had come out after Bush Jr. got into office, it probably would have been laughed (or booed) off the screen. 'Air Force One' came out at a time when being the President was heroic enough.
The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (2.40:1 ratio) is quite strong. There's a noticeable amount of grain, visible from the very first frame. This isn't too distracting, and makes it feel like you're watching a movie, instead of something that has been so digitally scrubbed that Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman look like they've been replaced by waxwork androids. Sometimes this can get distracting, with certain scenes looking soft or fuzzy, but overall I wouldn't say the grain takes away from the overall presentation.
Otherwise, there's a fair amount of depth and clarity to the shots, with colors (like the splashes of blood - this is a fairly violent movie, none of that 'Live Free or Die Hard' PG-13 nonsense) and textures really shining through. That iffy CGI shot towards the end of the movie only looks so iffy because the clarity of the picture is so outstanding. If you couldn't see the effect so well, then it probably wouldn't have made such an impression. (Editor's Note: I remember thinking that effect looked mindbogglingly phony even when I saw it in the theater.)
Besides the grain, I didn't notice any technical problems - no macro-blocking, noise or artifacts. While the 'Air Force One' transfer isn't the most outstanding example of a high-def transfer, it's still very strong and beats the pants off watching the film on late night cable television.
'Air Force One's' Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix is really strong and punchy. It's the perfect audio accompaniment for this type of movie. From the opening scene (that tactical mission that sets the rest of the film in motion), you know what you're getting - strong use of all channels for incredible immersion, loud booming presentation of Jerry Goldsmith's militaristic score (which he reportedly wrote and recorded in 14 days after the original score was scrapped at the last minute), with dialogue remaining crisp and strong throughout the action, especially when the movie cuts away to the political machinations of Vice President Glenn Close.
Gunfire pops. When those fighter jets zoom around, you can practically taste their afterburn. And punches land with a hard, weighty wallop. Every speaker is given a workout, without any muddiness, bleeding in between channels, or inconsistencies. This is a LOUD movie and the soundtrack delivers appropriately, without ever sacrificing nuance or clarity.
This is definitely a track to showoff when you invite your favorite action movie buffs over to watch with the surround sound turned all the way up. You just might want to give the neighbors a heads-up first.
Also included on the disc is a French Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track and subtitles in English, English SDH, and French.
'Air Force One' hasn't aged too well, but the action remains strong, and thanks to a fine AV package, this one is easily recommended for fans of the movie, for action fans, for people who want to give their surround sound a workout, for political nostalgia-lovers, and for people who like hearing a grizzled Harrison Ford shout "Get off my plane!"