Sunday, November 6, 2022

Always Bet On Black: Passenger 57 at 30


Once upon a time, action movie heroes didn't have to save the world to prove their worth. They could just, you know, save the day. They could just be an ordinary (if sometimes well trained) person at the right place and the right time and come between innocent people and terrorists, hijackers, what have you. And that was enough. They didn't have to have super powers. They could just be very good at kicking ass, something that the average person isn't. As a lifelong comic book aficionado, I'm all for superheroes in gaudy costumes and flashy powers but just the same I do miss the type of action movies that the current Marvel/DC landscape doesn't leave much room for. Even the supposedly regular people in today's action movies, whether it be in the Fast and Furious films or in one of the many Mission: Impossible's have to be able to accomplish extraordinary, superhuman feats. In today's world, the unassuming likes of Passenger 57 would never get off the ground. It would barely even qualify as an action movie. 

When it was released on November 6th, 1992, Passenger 57 was, in every way, standard issue early '90s fare. Coming four years after Die Hard, it's another story of a snooty, arrogant British terrorist who sees their plans up ended by the intervention of a regular Joe who just happened to be there. Wesley Snipes is John Cutter, the titular 57th passenger, aboard a plane that, by chance, is also transporting international terrorist Charles Rane (Bruce Payne), who's been apprehended and is on his way to face justice. It will surprise no one that Rane has plotted his escape in advance and that his associates are already on the plane, some as passengers, some among the plane's staff (in an early role, Elizabeth Hurley plays Rane's second-in-command, posing as a flight attendant). 

A former cop and retired Secret Service agent who's been working as a security consultant for airlines, Cutter has decided to accept an offer from his old buddy Sly Delvecchio (Tom Sizemore, giving this the '90s stamp of authenticity) to take the vice presidency position in a new antiterrorism unit in his company, Atlantic International Airlines. Cutter is on this flight heading to LA to make his new job official. You don't need a degree in action cinema to know that Cutter's skills will be put to the test when, mid flight, Rane's people kill the FBI escorts chaperoning Rane and take over the plane. Most will also not be surprised that Marti (Alex Datcher), the attractive stewardess with whom Cutter had a testy encounter with early in the film during an airline security class he was teaching, turns out to be working this flight and that fighting terrorists helps them develop a mutual attraction.

It's no knock on it to note how by the numbers Passenger 57 is. The one element that made it stand out at the time, of course, was Wesley Snipes. After appearing in films like New Jack City and White Men Can't Jump, this was his first time as the lead in an action movie and audiences instantly responded to his supreme sense of cool and his convincing fighting skills. As a trained martial artist he had all the physicality that a Steven Seagal or Van Damme were able to bring to their fights but in addition he was a serious, top level actor as well. Snipes also had a worthy adversary to face off with here with Payne being the perfect arrogant slime to contrast against Snipes. While Rane is smugly convinced of his own superiority, Cutter is there to burst his bubble. The two of them playing off each other make this otherwise routine movie more memorable.

While there wasn't much outside of Snipes and Payne to make Passenger 57 stand out in 1992, the entire movie stands out now. This is such a keepsake of its era. All the things that no one gave a second thought to in '92 now jump out. Just the fact of how simple it is. It is straight up plain by today's standards. After Cutter evades Rane's men on the commandeered flight and he finds a way to dump most of the plane's fuel, it forces Rane to land the plane at a Louisiana airfield to refuel and the action then moves to a nearby local county fair. In a world where Fast and the Furious has sent its characters into space, it's really something to see a movie where having the hero scramble up a ferris wheel to evade a henchman was seen as meeting the requirements of the action genre. 

Director Kevin Hooks was not, in any way, trying to raise the bar here. Passenger 57 has a charming lack of spectacle about it. At one point, Cutter has to get back on board the plane before it takes off again and this means he has to jump from a moving car onto the landing gear of the plane before the wheels retract. Now, if you think this sounds like something that even TJ Hooker could pull off, you'd be right. It's nothing you or I would dare attempt but for an action hero, it's not anything to brag about. This is not any Mission: Impossible shit, that's for sure. Next to what Ethan Hunt or John Wick get up to these days, Cutter might as well be solving mysteries in Cabot Cove. 

From today's perspective, the main thing I have to marvel at while watching Passenger 57 is the fact that it played in theaters. It's just so strange to remember a time when action movies this basic were the stuff of wide theatrical releases. Aside from the pedestrian action, it's just small scale in every way. There's no multiverse to be saved, no hierarchy of power to be changed. No mid-credit scene. No world building. It is nothing more than a guy saving a plane load of people from a terrorist. 

While you could say the same about other old school action films like Cliffhanger or Speed, there's an extra level of panache to those. They're such well constructed, well executed films, there's no questioning why they were hits and even with their low stakes, it's easy to imagine them earning a wide release today. Passenger 57, not so much.

Aside from the way it hails from a different time for action, Passenger 57 also reflects a different era in American culture. With Snipes as the hero, there are several moments in Passenger 57 that touch on the issue of race. It comes up in a humorous way when the dotty old white lady who Marti takes great satisfaction in purposely seating next to Cutter raves to him about how much she loves his show and he realizes that she thinks he's Arsenio Hall ("I just loved it when you told off that Madonna! Who's she to tell you how to wear your hair?"). It comes up more seriously later in the film when Cutter has to contend with Louisiana law enforcement as they refuse to believe him at his word about Rane and treat him like a criminal. But even here, Biggs, the local police chief (played by Ernie Lively) and his men aren't depicted as racists, just as slightly ignorant backwater yokels. 

Once the FBI gets involved, Biggs and his men quickly get on board with backing Cutter (even though Cutter kicked the ass of some of these cops earlier to escape custody) and by the end, Cutter feels free to poke at Biggs with some verbal jibes. These two might not have become best buds but they've learned to work together and respect each other. The ease in which societal tensions and differences are acknowledged and then resolved, at least in the immediate moment, seems a million miles away from where we are now. The Arsenio bit gets a funny callback at the end when all the saved passengers do the "Woof! Woof! Woof!" chant in unison as a victorious Cutter exits the plane and the general lack of acrimony here between various walks of life is a reminder of a time when America didn't feel so bitterly divided and when racism seemed to be on the retreat, rather than on the rise. Maybe even then it was only an illusion but watching Passenger 57 it tugs at the heart a bit to feel that, for awhile, things seemed to be moving in the right direction. 

Despite occupying a pivotal place in Snipes' career, Passenger 57 is not so well remembered today. The classic line "Always bet on black!" that served as the killer hook in its trailer has proved to be more enduring than the movie itself. If you saw it back in '92, though, you likely regard Passenger 57 with fondness. As a slice of '90s nostalgia, it's a pleasant flight back to a much simpler time.    

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