Be warned: Air Force One overdoses on the cheesy American flag-waving. There's too much "We love you, Mr President", "It's been a pleasure, Mr President" and "There's only one parachute left and the plane is going to crash, but don't worry about me, - you save yourself, Mr President." Like Bill Pullman's irritatingly perfect Prez in ID4, Ford (ex-Vietnam vet, but doesn't like to talk about it) is almost universally admired and loved. He's the leader of the free world, and an indestructible action hero.
Ford is the main reason why this film is a cut above your common-or-garden hijack thriller. Directed by In The Line Of Fire's Wolfgang Petersen, it kicks off at a fierce pace, with a group of special forces soldiers parachuting into Kazakhstan to abduct a tinpot general. Soon after, we're served up another immensely satisfying gun battle, as the general's cronies (led by bearded supercommie Gary Oldman) take over Air Force One, the bulletproof/ blastproof presidential jet. Our main man escapes to the hold, of course.
The first 30 minutes or so leave you breathless, and then you realise that scriptwriter Andrew Marlowe has The Hollywood Guide To Writing A Hijack Thriller sticking firmly out of his back pocket. Just count those clichés: there's the psychotic criminal leader; the have-a-go hero who evades capture; the terrorist extras who exist only to be bumped off by said do-gooder; the sweaty passengers hoping they're not next in line for a bullet in the brain... Thus Ford creeps around the belly of the 747, looking for ways to disable it, while Oldman shouts, shoots, reveals how much he despises the capitalist pig dogs in charge of the new Russia, and plays mind games with the Prez's wife and daughter.
Petersen switches the focus of the movie between Ford's pained President (and Oldman's trigger-happy terrorist) and the various squabbling politicos (including Glenn Close as a convincing Vice President, and Dean Stockwell as an arrogant Defense Secretary), who don't know what to do. After his stirring speech against cutting deals with terrorists, the President faces a terrible decision. Should he accede to Gary Oldman's demands and free the abducted general, thus saving his loved ones' lives? Will he be allowed to do so, anyway?
For gung-ho American audiences, there's doubtless a lot of satisfaction to be had seeing your great country's leader personally boot some terrorist ass. But this admiration for the presidential office is something that will ring hollow for most Brits (be it John or be it Tony, we don't view the position of prime minister with anywhere near the same warmth). Air Force One's lump-in-the-throat, patriotic spirit is an unavoidable (and laughable) Americanism, while the rest of the film comes across as a stylish and effects-laden but over-familar Die Hard On A Plane. It's essentially another Passenger 57 or Executive Decision, but with the addition of the big-name draw of Ford, and truly spectacular visual effects (highlights: an F-15 versus MiG 29 dogfight, a desperate punch-up on a lowered cargo ramp at 15,000ft, and an exploding oil tanker).
There are a few dodgy moments (to dump some fuel, the Prez has to cut two wires from a choice of red, white, blue, green and yellow - go on, Einstein, work it out), but Ford's undimmed charisma is enough to make you forget the clichéd scripting and its gag-inducing jingoism. Entertaining, and often spectacularly so, Air Force One dishes up traitors, suspense, guns and dazzling, unbelievable action set pieces. Bar the star-spangled banner-waving, it amounts to an enjoyably zippy two-hour Ford head trip.
Harrison Ford proves that age and job description is no barrier to strangling terrorists, firing guns and outhinking the finest military minds the USA has to offer. Whizzy special effects, stirring music and a pacy, ballsy script all manage to push the right buttons. But when, you can't help thinking, will we get a hero who's not an ex-special forces/Vietnam vet/disgraced rescue operative?