Sunday 6 September 2015

Movie Review: Airplane! (1980)

A riotous comedy that reinvented the genre, Airplane! mercilessly satirizes disaster movies and sets the new standard for a barrage-based, laugh-a-second approach to humour on film.

McCroskey, at the start of the night: Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking.

Ted Striker (Robert Hays) is a taxi driver haunted by his past as an air force pilot who led his squadron on a doomed raid. Desperate to win back the affection of his flight attendant girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty), Ted boards the commercial overnight Los Angeles to Chicago flight that she is a crew member on. The pilot is Captain Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves), and soon he and his co-pilot Roger Murdock (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), along with many of the passengers, are taken seriously ill after eating the on-board meal of rotten fish.

McCroskey, as the crisis develops: Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.

As Elaine struggles to control the plane with the help of a blow-up doll auto-pilot, passenger Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) convinces Ted that he needs to overcome his fears, take over the controls and land the plane safely. Meanwhile, at Chicago airport, tower supervisor Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) calls in veteran pilot Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) to help guide the landing. Rex was Ted's air force commander, adding to Ted's emotional turmoil.

McCroskey, in the middle of the crisis: Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines.

Of course, the plot doesn't matter at all. Airplane!'s sole purpose is to cram as many preposterous jokes as possible into the 87 minutes of running time, and it succeeds brilliantly. Finding the 1970s Airport-inspired flight disaster movie sub-genre a target rich with silly possibilities, co-directors and co-writers Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker excel in sending-up all the clich├ęs with a non-stop stream of biting comedy.

McCroskey, near the climax: Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.

The passengers include the usual mix of ethnicities and age groups, from sweet nuns to incomprehensible but cool black dudes to the sickly child in need of a transplant, plus the old ladies and the typical white suburban family. Many of them are subjected to Ted's insufferably long life story, and many choose death at their own hand just to end the agony of having to listen to him drone on. The flashbacks to the early days of the Ted and Elaine romance feature some of the sharpest jokes, including hilarious references to the beach lovemaking scene in From Here To Eternity and the disco dancing highlights of Saturday Night Fever.

Dr. Rumack to Ted and Elaine, before the landing: I just wanna tell you both: good luck. We're all counting on you.

Airplane! also gets down and dirty with some on-the-edge material, including Captain Clarence's deviant sexual proclivities and Elaine rescuing the auto-pilot with a timely blow-up job. Meanwhile, on the ground, McCroskey has chosen the wrong week to quit all his vices, and when the shit hits the fan, it really does.

Dr. Rumack to Ted and Elaine, during the chaos of the landing: I just wanna tell you both: good luck. We're all counting on you.

The cast is perfectly into the manic vibe. Hayes and Hagerty were forever defined by their roles as break-up lovers in big trouble, and deliver wide-eyed, oblivious performances. Veterans Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack relive past glories through the lunatic lens, while Leslie Nielsen steals the show and reinvents himself as a leading man of deadpan humour.

Dr. Rumack to Ted and Elaine, after the landing: I just wanna tell you both: good luck. We're all counting on you.

Airplane! zooms past at jet speed. It is not just a riot in the sky, but also an indelible milestone in the history of funny cinema.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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