Ever since the ’80s, action films have been overwhelmingly basic in concept, execution, and title. So when you hear that the new Gerard Butler film is called “Plane,” you’d be forgiven for thinking that you can run the entire movie through your head in the blink of an eye. Gerard Butler on a plane (check). He’s probably the pilot (check). There’s probably a criminal onboard (check). The film will be a low-flying, B-grade “Air Force One,” with Butler’s windpipe-smashing grizzled lug saving the day in the same way that Harrison Ford’s heroically resourceful chief executive did.
Butler, in his broken-down-dad-with-a-chip-of-gold-on-his-shoulder mode, does indeed play a commercial airline pilot, Brodie Torrance, who in the early scenes boards a passenger jet that he’s piloting on New Year’s Eve out of Singapore (where he’s based). There is indeed a criminal onboard the plane: a convicted murderer in handcuffs, Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter), who is being transferred and gets added to the passenger list at the last minute. We expect fireworks, and they arrive — but only in the form of bad weather. The executive in charge at Trailblazer Airlines has decided to send the plane in the direction of a hellacious storm, because it will save fuel costs not to have it take the long way around.
Brodie is supposed to steer the flight over the top of the storm, but apparently this storm has no top. It knocks the plane around like a tin can, and then a lightning strike shorts out the jet’s electrical system. These scenes are suitably harrowing, especially if you possess any anxiety about flying. As the plane starts to lose altitude, it becomes clear that Brodie is going to have no choice but to land it, even though there’s nothing but ocean below him.
But wouldn’t you know it, he spots land. An island of jungle terrain with a road snaking right through the middle of it. How convenient! Putting on his Sully Sullenberger cap, Brodie is able to make an emergency landing, using the road as a makeshift runway and stranding the shorted-out plane and its 14 passengers on what turns out to be Jolo, a remote island in the Philippines controlled by an outlaw militia of anti-government radicals.
We thought we were watching “Plane.” But now we’re watching “Island,” or “Hostages in the Tropics,” or “Gerard Butler Outwits and Kicks the Asses of Scruffy Nihilist Guerrillas.” “Plane” is a plane thriller that turns into a kidnap-escape thriller that turns into a “Defiant Ones” buddy thriller that turns into a mission-control thriller that turns back into a plane thriller. But the fact that it’s all those things at once works to its advantage. Jean-François Richet, the French crime-drama director (“Mesrine”) turned low-down expatriate action stylist (“Blood Father”), leapfrogs genres so that none of them overstays its welcome. The movie has a likable utilitarian quality, rooted in recognizable behavior, that almost seems to have come out of the pre-Sly-and-Arnold world. If anything, it winds up feeling less stranded on that remote island than “Triangle of Sadness” does on its.
Butler is 53 now, and his hardass Scottish valor is aging like fine wine — or, at least, pretty good ale. He has a warm and fuzzy side, which comes out in Brodie’s phone chats with his collegiate daughter, Daniela (Haleigh Hekking), who he was supposed to rendezvous with after the flight. He makes contact with her again in one of the film’s best scenes, set in an abandoned communications hut in the middle of the jungle, where Brodie, in just a few minutes, is able to rewire the phone line, so that he can place a call to Trailblazer Airlines. A war room of corporate troubleshooters, led by a former Special Forces officer played by Tony Goldwyn (who’s like Ryan Seacrest’s sinewy sibling), is standing by, trying to pinpoint the vanished plane’s location. But Brodie, in a distressingly funny scene, gets hooked up to an annoying 21st-century company operator who won’t cooperate with him. (She thinks he’s a prank caller.) So he’s forced to call Daniela.
Even when the Trailblazer folks figure out where the plane is, they can’t just swoop in for the rescue. The Philippines government won’t cooperate; only mercenaries will go in there. Which means that Brodie essentially has to fight the rebels by himself, though he does deputize a partner: Louis, the killer in handcuffs, played by the charismatic Mike Colter, who makes this bruiser a wronged man who nevertheless keeps you guessing. The rest of the passengers cower and bicker — or, in the case of the arrogant businessman Sinclair (Joey Slotnick), bark out orders until the rebels, led by Dele (Yoson An), the short-fused commander who’s like a penny-ante Che Guevara, reduce him to wimpy subservience. They need ransom money to fund their war, a plan that Brodie undercuts with fists, machine guns, surgical espionage timing and extreme piloting skills. “Plane” is fodder, but the picture brazens through its own implausibilities, carried along — and occasionally aloft — by Gerard Butler’s squinty dynamo resolve.