BY MICHAEL WALTERS/CANTANKEROUS CRITIC
Denzel Washington is in for a bumpy “Flight.” It takes off immediately, but would have soared much higher if it hadn’t been weighed down by too much extra baggage.
Washington plays captain Whip Whitaker, a functioning alcoholic airline pilot who does more while drunk as a skunk than most pilots could do sober. The film begins with one of the most thrilling, edge-of-your-seat, forearm-grabbing plane crashes I’ve ever seen on film. And through sheer skill flying the plane upside down, Washington lands the plane with a minimum of casualties.
And after putting our flawed hero on a pedestal, the movie spends the rest of its running time slowly chipping away at him. No one can argue that his actions weren’t heroic, but as the investigation into the plane crash delves deeper, his own personal addictions are constantly threatening to obscure his good deed. It’s a testament to Washington and director Robert Zemekis that this is no less gripping than the original plane crash.
However, “Flight” hits plenty of turbulence along the way whenever it deviates from Washington’s main storyline and dabbles in manufactured melodrama. In particular, far too much time is spent on a drug addict played by Kelly Reilly. She meets Washington in the hospital smoking a cigarette in the stairwell, and inexplicably they become friends. But Reilly’s character serves absolutely no purpose and stops the movie dead in its tracks whenever she’s on screen. The only reason she seems to exist is to give Washington someone to talk to during his bouts of drunkenness.
It’s unlikely that anyone but Denzel Washington could have pulled this role off. He’s a movie star, but one willing to dig deeply into exposing his own character flaws. And Whip Whitaker is undoubtedly flawed. Washington is so likeable you want to root for him, but he’s such a backsliding, self-sabotaging drunk you may wonder why.
The film is about a half-hour too long and loses its nerve a little at the end, offering a glimmer of a redemptive arc that seems to come out of nowhere. In many ways, “Flight” is like its hero, a deeply flawed movie that succeeds almost in spite of itself.