It’s an opening for the ages: Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) rubs his eyes, takes a slug of hard liquor and a toke on the joint proffered by his leggy and very naked bedmate, snorts a quick line of powder for good measure, then slips on his pilot’s uniform and heads to work. Unsurprisingly, that day’s hop from Miami to Atlanta doesn’t go exactly to plan – the plane comes down in a Georgia cornfield, one wing sheared clean off. But was Whip’s intoxication to blame, or has this seasoned flier actually saved the lives of 96 people?
Following this barnstorming scene-setter, ‘Flight’ settles into fairly textbook Hollywood routines: a troubled man, a problem woman (Kelly Reilly’s recovering junkie, Nicole, who meets our hero in hospital), some lessons to be learned, some growing to be done. There’s a legal case simmering – Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle are on board for added gravitas – but it never quite comes to the boil.
Still, Robert Zemeckis’s return to live-action cinema after ‘The Polar Express’ and ‘Beowulf’, and more than a decade since ‘Cast Away’, offers numerous pleasures. First and foremost is Washington’s muscular leading turn. He’s the only fully rounded character, and most of that is down to Denzel: Reilly never gets past ‘nagging reformed addict’, while John Goodman’s turn as a mouthy coke dealer runs the gamut of Southern fried clichés.
Zemeckis’s direction is oddly muted – perhaps he needed a break from visual excess in the wake of all that 3D and motion-capture – but it suits the material: for all its obviousness, ‘Flight’ never gets too bombastic or preachy. ‘Real Steel’ writer John Gatins’s script may be old fashioned, but it’s witty too, and occasionally insightful – a confrontation between Whip and his estranged son is particularly believable. So ‘Flight’ is predictable in its plotting and soft in its conclusions. But thanks to that dynamite opening and Washington’s effortless performance, it's also an enjoyable, compelling slice of old-school melodrama.