Review by Daniel Lima
The title Air Force One Down invokes two action films that center on the American presidency. One is the languid 1997 Harrison Ford vehicle Air Force One, featuring the president himself taking on terrorists who have taken over the titular plane. The other is White House Down, a fun buddy action-comedy that teams the president with a cop as they take out terrorists in the titular building. In referencing those films so obviously, this DTV thriller announces its own low ambitions as a brainless, disposable genre flick that seeks only to hold the audience's attention for just under ninety minutes. It fails even that, but not without earning some plaudits.
Katherine McNamara stars as a fresh recruit to the U.S. Secret Service, assigned to protect the well-heeled, silver-spooned president by her uncle and new boss. On only her second day on the job, she finds herself on board the official plane of the commander-in-chief as a group of armed Estonian dissidents takes it over. She quickly becomes the last line of defense between the insurgents and the most powerful man in the world, so she must push herself to the brink to ensure his safety.
It should come as no surprise that this is not a thought-provoking work, though the extent of the script's complete lack of intellectual rigor is surprising even by the standards of a low-budget direct-to-video action movie. Estonia, one of the most highly-developed countries in the world, having an active armed communist resistance in the 2020s is completely untethered from reality; clearly, the filmmakers just threw a dart at a list of former Soviet states. That an Estonian-American oil deal would be a hot-button political issue is even more laughable. McNamara's character is a MARSOC operator who is somehow allowed to abandon her commission for a civilian job. A thousand and one little details like these give the impression that the screenplay was just a series of mad libs.
These are just nitpicks, but there are structural issues as well. The film is halfway over by the time McNamara actually has to spend time with Ian Bohen's president. Where most films would take the obvious but effective tack of wringing some dramatic tension out of their differing personalities or McNamara's negative perception of him, Air Force One Down quickly dispels that possibility. Most of the dialogue is empty exposition, establishing the narrative stakes without ever setting up the emotional ones. The cast is given next to nothing to flesh out their characters, barring a character's name popping up in the corner of the screen that anyone watching is bound to forget. Even at this movie's short runtime, it struggles to build momentum. Things just seem to happen until they don't, each new plot development more obvious than the last.
This is obviously a resource-starved production, so it's hard to fault how cheap it all looks. Every location is clearly a set, barren white office walls sparsely and unconvincingly decorated to look like the Oval Office or Air Force One. A solid chunk of the film is lit flatly and staged with as basic a setup as possible, looking more like a commercial than a feature film. Plenty of strange cuts and VFX are off, almost certainly a casualty of lack of time.
Despite that, there are a handful of touches that are appreciated. While the more pristine interiors all look bland and fake, the grotty military facilities the villains lurk in do conjure the feel of disused buildings commandeered by a guerrilla fighting force filled with grime and shadows. Though the performers have precious little good material to work with, they do an admirable job attempting to make the afterthoughts of these characters feel like actual people.
Most impressively, the action is actually decent, even accounting for the budget. Director James Bamford has been working as a stuntman since the early 1990s, even serving as stunt coordinator on the huge Indian blockbuster Ek Tha Tiger, and he puts his experience to good use here. Though there isn't a lot of action, what's here is frenetic, claustrophobic, well-paced, and actually takes care to make use of the environment. From a couple of brutal fight scenes to a stitched-together oner that uses the jagged editing to its advantage, giving the set piece a certain threadbare flair, this action punches above its weight.
I wish I could say that was enough to make Air Force One Down a worthwhile watch. For a certain kind of person, the promise of solid action in something so otherwise unremarkable might be intriguing enough. To anyone else, I would recommend White House Down. At the very least, I can confirm this clears the low bar of Wolfgang Petersen's film.
Air Force One Down is now and theaters and will be available on digital February 9.