When Russian terrorists take over his private 747, the President of the United States himself rolls up his sleeves and wades in.
The potential is mouthwatering: director Wolfgang Petersen returning to the politically charged thriller genre he made his own with In The Line Of Fire; action icon Harrison Ford in the role he was clearly destined to play - a President of the USA who kicks arse; and a scenario that ups the ante on any Die Hard On A Plane variations by placing the most prominent world leader in dire jeopardy. Happily, Air Force One fulfils all its early promise, delivering a well oiled, no-nonsense, supremely entertaining crowd pleaser.
Following an impassioned speech in which he takes a hardline stance against terrorism, President James Marshall (Ford), together with his wife and their 12-year-old daughter, boards the titular jet to return to the States from Moscow. Midflight, however, the plane is taken hostage by an extremist nationalist Russki faction, led by bearded baddie Kurshonov (Oldman). The group's demands are clear cut and brutal: the release of their imprisoned leader General Radek (Jurgen Prochnow) or they will kill a passenger every half-an-hour.
In the melee, Marshall eludes the hijackers, feigns escape in an emergency pod and begins to wage a one man guerrilla war to gain control of the plane. This clears the decks for some taut-as-piano-wire cat and mousery as the pumped-up Prez - who it turns out is a decorated Vietnam vet - plays hide and seek with the bad guys, knocking them off one by one in a manner that more befits Clint than Clinton. Indeed, in this age of post-Rambo sophistication, there is still something incredibly enjoyable about international incidents being resolved by two men slugging it out.
Forsaking the MTV dynamism and ironic spin of Con Air, Air Force One deals in more traditional forms of action blockbusterdom: the events at least aspire to a semblance of realism, the special effects are used sparsely to powerful ends and the jokey kiss-off lines are kept to a minimum. Moreover, Petersen - an old hand at milking maximum tension fron confined spaces via his submarine masterpiece Das Boot - orchestrates the compelling predicament with consummate mastery, escalating the spectacle from inflight fistcuffs to an amazing aborted landing set-piece and then some: from frame one, his grip does not falter and it feels good to be in such safe hands.
Be it handling difficult dilemmas or squaring up to monstrous evil, no one cuts it better in the action stakes than Ford: infusing all his stock in trade - stoic machismo, moral dignity, dyed in the wool decency - into the have-a-go politician. Air Force One benefits much from a blissful marriage between star persona and character spec. Oldman brings a genuine chill to his callous, intelligent terrorist, compared to his cartoony turn in The Fifth Element. Although Close, as the vice-president on the ground negotiating with him, has little to do except bark orders and chew scenery.
As with most actioners, the killjoys will find faults. The film is hokey on minutiae - the most security conscious aircraft in the world is effortlessly infiltrated and, much like ID4, almost every scene overflows with undiluted Yank jingoism - from a candlelit vigil outside the White House to the brazen nobility of Jerry Goldsmith's music - and the idea that "America is ace!" screams from every pore. Still, when it is served up with such pulpy panache, old-fashioned expertise and a hero so easy to root for, come the end credit scroll, it is virtually impossible not to stand up and salute.