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Executive Decision: 'AF1' Flies on Star Power

Air Force One directed by Wolfgang Petersen starring Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman and Glenn Close playing at Sony Fresh Pond, Cheri

By Christiana Briggs

There are no snakes, no Nazis, no ark or precious stones. There are, however, lots of flying punches, bruised cheekbones and bloody hands, a lovely lady and, of course, the stiff upper lip and drop-dead good looks of Harrison Ford. It may be years later, but Indy hasn't lost his touch for cunning escapes and coming out on top at the end of a long day. Only this time the adventure doesn't star Jones but the President of the United States--and it's not in the jungles of Central America or Asia but in the nation's premier passenger plane: Air Force One.

Ford plays President James Marshall, a man of action who orders a joint Russian-American commando raid and capture of the genocidal dictator General Radek in Kazakhstan. After the operation is successfully accomplished, Marshall delivers an I-mean-it speech in Moscow warning terrorists that "your day is over," then boards AF1 with his wife, 12-year-old daughter and some 50 staff members. Once airborne, just as Marshall is settling down to enjoy a recorded Notre Dame/Michigan football game, terrorists disguised as a Russian TV crew and led by Gary Oldman as Korshunov, a fanatical Radek loyalist, take over the plane and begin their own reign of terror.

After an initial shootout leaving more than a few secret service men strewn across the cabin, the rest of the passengers are locked into a conference room and held hostage with the promise that until Radek is released, one hostage will be executed each half hour. What the hijackers don't know is that the President, whom everyone believes has escaped in a special emergency "pod," is beginning a little guerrilla warfare from within the bowels of the plane.

The cast is excellent right from the top, especially Ford as the ideal President, whose love for his family, integrity and courage (he earned a medal of honor in Vietnam) make him the perfect man to lead the free world--and that's before he reveals his ability to pack a powerful punch. On the ground, Glenn Close plays a cool and collected V.P. who has to deal not only with the crisis in the air but also with a power struggle with a Secretary of Defense who seems to have a problem with not being in control himself. There are other strong female actresses, as well: the first lady, convincingly played by Wendy Crewson, is both openly supportive of her husband and independently strong-willed in her own right, while the first daughter, Alice (Liesel Matthews) proves equally plucky.

The few brief glimpses of General Radek (Jurgen Prochnow) plunge us back into the Cold War: As he strides across the prison yard in highly decorated military uniform, he looks the epitome of a maniacal tyrant. But it's Oldman's performance as Korshunov that gives the film its tension and intensity, adding layers to his character's coolly calculating role with outbursts of frightening patriotic zeal for "Mother Russia." There is also a revealing moment when Korshunov gently kisses Alice on the forehead and strokes back her hair from her tear-stained face, suggesting that beneath the seemingly cold-blooded terrorist is a man who has lived an unfortunate life, a man with a wife and children of his own, momentarily moved by looking into the eyes of a young girl.

"AF1" has humorous touches, as when Ford creeps past baggage and broken glass from refrigerators filled with enough milk, orange juice and cases of Bud to quench the thirst of all Kazakhstan; and when, after fumbling through the pages of a cellular phone user's pamphlet, he finds himself dealing with a skeptical White House phone operator who responds, "Yeah. And I'm the First Lady." Equally amusing is a parachute scene in which a secretary who provides key assistance to Marshall descends, smiling, into the safety of...central Asia.

The scenes in the White House are just as comical, with staffers and military officers constantly running around as Close battles it out with the Defense Secretary over who has top say in this situation. It takes the Attorney General, various snide remarks, and a final moment-of-conscience from the V.P. herself for her to decide that Marshall is still in control. Close also has a great moment when she's able to shut up an entire press conference: leaving reporters with nothing to say is no small feat.

Balancing the humor is plenty of heart-pounding action and suspense--the Indiana Jones survival tactics, sprays of gunfire, sharp blows and the heavy thud of falling bodies. And of course, the token patriotic fervor of America versus foreign terrorists, as Marshall, unable to cut the red, white and blue wires, correctly chooses the yellow and green.

The movie has its serious moments, too: the subtlety of the actors' facial expressions, well used throughout the film but especially in the scenes between Korshunov and Marshall's family, is often more effective than the corny dialogue. And in the air-fight scene, with the terrorists' planes closing in on AF1, a fighter's cold and determined eyes are eerily lit by green light while the rest of his face is covered by his helmet and oxygen mask.

This contrast between subtlety and silliness, improbability and believability, makes for a thrilling yet well-balanced summer blockbuster. And, best of all, the ever-reliable Ford is there to save the day. Though the action seldom descends below 15,000 feet, and Ford wears a rumpled suit and tie rather than his trademark fedora and bull-whip, as always, his hero triumphs and survives with what is perhaps his greatest treasure: his family.

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