Air Force One, possibly the best movie set on an airplane and definitely the best movie where Harrison Ford uses a piece of cargo strapping to break someone’s neck, celebrated its 20th anniversary on Tuesday. Let me ask you a question, because I recently rewatched it and then I rewatched Die Hard 2 (also a movie where a person tries to stop terrorists on a plane) and then Passenger 57 (same) and then Non-Stop (same) and then Executive Decision (same): Which hero from which movie would you most want on your flight if it was suddenly taken over by terrorists? Who do you pick? You have to trust one of them with your life. Who do you think is the most likely to get you back on the ground alive?
And what if we extend the premise to characters from movies that are just set on planes in general but don’t necessarily have the terrorist angle? Who would you then pick from all of the airplane movie heroes, impromptu or otherwise? And since we’re here, here are some more airplane movie questions to think about: Who’s the pilot from an airplane movie you’d want when your plane malfunctions and starts to fall out of the sky? Who’s the passenger from an airplane movie you’d most want to end up sitting next to during your trip? Who’s the passenger from an airplane movie you’d least want to end up sitting next to? Who’s the movie flight attendant you want working your flight? And who’s the person you want around if you get stuck in an airport for an extended amount of time during a layover?
Let’s answer all of those.
Who’s the pilot you’d want when the plane malfunctions and starts to fall out of the sky?
There’s maybe an urge here to go with, say, someone like Sully from Sully. (He safely crash-lands a plane on the Hudson when its engines go out.) (Also, he’s played by Tom Hanks in the movie, and Tom Hanks has an exceptionally trustable face.) But I’m passing on him for two reasons: (1) His crash-landing was just a little too neat and tidy for me to feel all the way confident that he can handle anything beyond the most basic level of crash-landings. The plane was up in the air, the engines went out, Sully was like, "Um, did the engines just go out," the copilot was like, "Yes," Sully was like, "OK, I guess we’re gonna land this thing on the Hudson," and then the plane just glided down onto the water. That’s it. That was all that happened. That’s not enough. I need to see what you’re going to do when things start to go super wrong. (2) Even more telling than the simplicity of the crash-landing is that as Sully and his copilot were coasting the plane toward the water, Sully very sincerely asked his copilot, "You got any ideas?" That’s a real thing he said. That’s not a thing I want for my pilot to say in a regular situation, let alone an emergency situation.
So I don’t want Sully. You know who I want? I want Denzel Washington’s Whip Whitaker from Flight. He had more stuff go wrong with his plane (he lost the hydraulics, the engines caught on fire and then went out, the landing gear got stuck, etc.). He landed it in a harder area to land a plane (a small field). He had to deal with a copilot who was all the way terrified (Sully’s copilot never panicked). He had to solve the problem of the plane falling from way higher in the sky (HE TURNED THE PLANE UPSIDE DOWN TO LEVEL IT BECAUSE THE CONTROLS WEREN’T WORKING). And he did all of that while he was drunk. He’s the pick. He’s who I trust. Swap out Sully and Whip for each other and Flight becomes a 20-minute movie because everyone’s dying in that crash.
(Another good pick here is Dean Cain’s Rick Pierce from Airplane vs. Volcano, a straight-to-DVD action movie from 2014 about a plane that ends up flying through a gigantic ring of exploding volcanoes.) (Rick is a passenger who has to take over the flight controls after the pilots get killed.) (I’ll take Rick over Sully, too.) (Sully had to deal with zero volcanoes.)
(Another good pick here is Swamp Thing from Con Air. He landed his plane on the Vegas strip while missing half a wing and also he crashed into a casino and hit a cluster of slot machines with the nose of the plane and one of the slot machines hit a jackpot.) (I’ll take Swamp Thing over Sully, too.) (Sully hit zero jackpots.)
Who’s the flight attendant you would want for your flight?
I feel like I need to pick Pam Grier’s Jackie Brown in Jackie Brown because she was a smuggler and that’s cool, but also because she’s Pam Grier and that’s even cooler, but also it should probably be Lauren Holly’s Teri Halloran in Turbulence because she had to land the plane after the pilots were killed, and also she had to defeat a serial killer at the same time.
Who would you want around if you get stuck in an airport during a layover?
I feel like I need to pick George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air because he has access to the nicest lounges at all the best airports, but also it should probably be Tom Hanks’s Viktor Navorski in The Terminal since he actually ended up having to live in a terminal for nine months.
Who’s the passenger you would want to sit next to?
The final scene of Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, puts Hannibal Lecter on an airplane, so a surprise pick here would be to choose to sit next to him. I will admit, yes, there’s a small chance he would murder you, and that would be less than ideal. And you’d also have to deal with the quagmire of watching him feed a piece of cooked human brain to an Asian child, which could be tricky. But Hannibal is very charming and very smart and also very interesting, and those traits make for a good seatmate, so sitting next to him might actually be worth the hassle.
Short of that, a different good pick here would probably be Max Klein from 1993’s Fearless. In that movie, Klein’s plane crashes during a business trip. In the moments before the crash, Klein accepts that he’s going to die and experiences a profound state of peace. As everything on the plane turns to chaos and becomes a bigger and bigger disaster, he remains calm and soothing and confident. He comforts people around him, and even gets up and walks over to sit next to a boy who’s on the plane alone so he can make him feel at peace, too. That’s a good type of energy to have around when you’re on a plane (or when you’re anywhere, really). So you could go with him and it’d be fine.
However, do you know what’s even better than sitting next to a guy who stays calm during a disaster? Sitting next to a guy who can predict the disaster. That’s why I’m stepping past Klein to make sure that my pick for this category is Alex Browning from Final Destination. Alex’s plane crashes in that movie, too, except the main difference is Alex has a premonition that it’s about to happen, so he freaks out and tries to tell everyone that the plane is going to crash before it takes off.* That’s the guy I want to sit next to. I want the one who’s going to save my life, not the one who’s going to make me feel OK that it’s about to be over.
*Nobody believes Alex when he starts screaming that the plane is going to crash. They all just tell him to shut up and so on. He gets kicked off the plane (as do a couple of other people for fighting with him). The plane takes off and then it explodes in the sky before it even gets out of view of the airport. A thing that will never happen to me in my life is I will never be on a plane and hear someone start screaming that the plane is going to explode and then I stay on that plane. I’m sprinting clean off that bitch. Trust the universe when it tries to deliver a miracle to you.
Who’s the passenger you would not want to sit next to?
If this has to be a real pick, then the person I don’t want to end up sitting next to is Jackson Rippner, the domestic terrorist in Red Eye.* (He tries to blackmail a hotel manager named Lisa Reisert into helping him and his terrorist friends assassinate a member of the government staying in her hotel. He does so by threatening to murder Lisa’s father.) If this can be a silly pick, then the person I don’t want to end up sitting next to is any of the zombies on the plane in World War Z. And if this can be a dumb pick, then the person I don’t want to end up sitting next to isn’t even a person, it’s the snakes from Snakes on a Plane.**
*Another good pick would be anyone from 1993’s Alive who ate someone after the crash.
**There’s a movie called Snakes on a Train. It was made by the same studio that made Airplane vs. Volcano. The studio is called the Asylum. Some of the other movies they’ve made: Sharknado, Transmorphers, Atlantic Rim, Paranormal Entity, and 2-Headed Shark Attack.
Who’s the person you hope is on your plane if you happen to need an impromptu hero?
Give me Jodie Foster’s Kyle Pratt in Flightplan. She not only had to untangle and solve a $50 million conspiracy, but she also had to do so while being framed as a hijacker and an insane person (the bad guys grab Kyle’s daughter while they’re on the plane, drug her, stash her away in a special compartment of the plane, then convince everyone that she died in the same accident that killed Kyle’s husband and that the trauma from the loss has turned Kyle into a deviant). One time I lost my headphones on a flight from Houston to Los Angeles and I had a super breakdown because I couldn’t find them. I can’t even imagine what it’d be like if I lost a kid on a plane.
Who’s the person you hope is on your plane if you happen to need a person trained to be a hero?
This category is the most talent-loaded of all the categories. You’ve got Bruce Willis’s John McClane in Die Hard 2. You’ve got Liam Neeson’s Bill Marks in Non-Stop. You’ve got Harrison Ford’s James Marshall in Air Force One. (He was the president in the movie, but he had a long and decorated combat history from serving in the military.) You’ve got Nicolas Cage’s Cameron Poe in Con Air. (He was a criminal in the movie, but, same as James Marshall, he had a long and decorated combat history from serving in the military.) You’ve got Sam Jackson’s Neville Flynn in Snakes on a Plane. You’ve got Steven Seagal’s Lt. Colonel Austin Travis in Executive Decision. You’ve got Arnold Schwarzenegger’s John Kruger during the plane scene in Eraser. You’ve got Brandon Routh’s Superman in Superman Returns (this one feels like a cheat). On and on and on.
The person I’m going with here isn’t any of the aforementioned, though. I’m going with Wesley Snipes’s John Cutter in Passenger 57. I like for my heroes to have five things:
- I like for them to have some ghosts they’re trying to outrun. Cutter’s wife was killed during a robbery he tried to stop. It really busted him up a bunch. He was constantly having flashbacks of her. He accidentally called a different woman his wife’s name during a tense scene. That’s the kind of baggage I like to see my heroes carrying around. It lets them know things don’t always end up the way they should, which keeps them smart and determined and focused.
- I like for them to be handsome. God bless young Wesley Snipes.
- I like for them to be smart. There has to be at least one point in the movie where the hero tries a sneak attack of some sort on the bad guy that nobody saw coming. (It also needs to not work. Good examples here are when Cameron Poe tried to tie the plane to a concrete column or when John Cutter snuck down into the belly of the plane and let the fuel out so that the bad guys had to land.)
- I like for them to be willing to poke someone in the eye by lobbing a well-timed joke or one-liner at them. Cutter’s most famous line is when he asks the terrorist if he’s ever played roulette, then, after the terrorist says yes, he responds, "Always bet on black," which is funny but also a sly jab at the lack of black action heroes that were allowed to star in movies during the mainstream action boom of the ’80s and ’90s. He has two other great ones, too, though. He has the one where, after a backwoods police chief catches Cutter and suspects him of being one of the terrorists and asks what Cutter would do if he was in the chief’s shoes, Cutter responds, "I’d kill myself." And he has the one where, after him and the chief have become friends and are chasing the terrorists together, he asks the chief why he’s not driving faster and better during a chase scene. The chief mentions that he hasn’t been challenged like that since high school, to which Cutter responds, "Chief, I didn’t know you went to high school."
- I like for them to have a certain amount of reluctance in their bones. It has to be a situation where they aren’t saving lives because they want to, they’re saving lives because they have to. A thing people forget is that Cutter wasn’t on the plane for any reason other than to travel from one place to another. It just so happened that he ended up there at the same time as a deadly terrorist. (If you’ll recall, he really wasn’t even trying to be a part of any real or active crime-stopping unit. He got shook after the death of his wife and had to slowly be coaxed into taking a job helping airlines prevent/stop attacks.)
If we require all of the above, the two people who score the highest are Cameron Poe and John Cutter. I’m going with John Cutter over Cameron Poe, though, because I like John Cutter’s smile more. That matters, too. Give me Cutter.