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The Soaring Highs of Airborne Action Movies

Action movies that take place in the sky offer a unique kind of thrill, and it’s a niche blockbuster subgenre that deserves to be celebrated more often.
Con Air
By  · Published on June 15th, 2020

Strap in, lock and load, get ready for action. The Danger Zone is an ongoing column that looks at some of the most exciting and interesting developments happening in the action genre.

While watching the trailer for Money Plane, a heist movie that takes place in the sky, a feeling of overwhelming joy possessed the entirety of my being. Not only is Money Plane a movie that tries something ridiculously different in the heist film realm, but it gives action buffs another air-bound thrill ride to look forward to.

The best action movies get the pulse racing with their grandiose premises and death-defying scenarios. This is especially true for movies that mostly take place in the clouds. Being up in the sky adds an element of danger to the mix that earthbound movies simply cannot provide. These flicks tap into acrophobic anxieties, while simultaneously giving viewers high altitude escapism from the safety of a couch.

Airborne actioners are few and far between, but that’s always been the case. Money Plane looks like some solid direct-to-video fare that won’t move the needle, so don’t expect the film to inspire the golden age that this subgenre deserves. The upcoming Top Gun: Maverick will do some business at the box office, though, and maybe that will encourage Hollywood to take to the skies more often.

While we wait for Money Plane and Top Gun: Maverick to fly into our eyeballs, there are some blasts from the past out there that everyone ought to check out. I’ve included a mix of big-hitters and forgotten gems, but they all have one thing in common, and that is in-flight action, baby. Hell yes.

Top Gun (1986)

No list of airplane actioners is complete without Tony Scott’s classic starring Tom Cruise as a cocky young pilot who loses his mojo following the death of his best friend. But this underdog story of redemption and overcoming the odds give Top Gun its heart. However, the aviation scenes — among the best you’re likely to see in a movie — give the film its mojo. A substantial portion of Top Gun’s story does take place on the ground, but the movie still makes this list because the jet scenes take it to majestic heights.

Drop Zone (1994) and Terminal Velocity (1994)

In 1994, two movies with similar premises hit theaters. Drop Zone and Terminal Velocity revolve around skydivers fighting against criminals, and they’re both a helluva lot of fun and make for a great double bill.

In Drop Zone, Wesley Snipes goes up against some hackers led by Gary Busey. Terminal Velocity, meanwhile, stars Charlie Sheen as a skydiving instructor who uncovers a conspiracy that puts his life in danger. James Gandolfini also shows up as a villain, and he’s brilliant as always.

Drop Zone is the better movie of the two in the grand scheme of things, mostly because Snipes is such an enigmatic screen presence. But Terminal Velocity has the best action sequence of the pair, as Sheen’s character rides a freefalling vehicle while tussling with a bad guy on the hood.

Passenger 57 (1992), Executive Decision (1996), and Air Force One (1997)

Die Hard is the gift that just keeps on giving to action cinema, and that was especially true during the ‘90s when a slew of copycat movies got released. Passenger 57, Executive Decision, and Air Force One applied the formula to great effect.

In Passenger 57, Snipes — whose contributions to this genre are notable — plays an agent who must take down some terrorists who have commandeered a plane. The twist? The hero is scared of heights. But that doesn’t stop him from laying the smackdown on all their candy asses.

Starring Kurt Russell, Steven Seagal, and Halle Berry, Executive Decision also centers around a terrorist hijacking on a plane, and a team of commandos must board the vessel to prevent a disaster from happening. This movie scores extra points for unexpectedly killing off a lead character within 30 minutes. The action beats are solid too, but the movie excels during its more suspenseful moments, of which there are plenty.

In Air Force One, Harrison Ford brings the jingoistic heroism and then some. He plays the President of the United States of America, trapped on a plane, taking on Soviet terrorists. Ford gives one of his best action hero performances in this one, but Gary Oldman steals the show as a ruthless commie extremist, chewing the scenery with pure glee.

Con Air (1997)

Nicolas Cage’s brief run as a blockbuster action star in the ‘90s saw the actor appear in a trifecta of bona fide classics: The Rock, Face/Off, and Con Air. For this exercise, however, I’m only focusing on Con Air, as it’s probably the best movie ever made that takes place in the sky.

In the movie, Cage plays an ex-con who gets released from prison and sets out to return to his family for a life of law-abiding freedom. Unfortunately, he gets stuck in the middle of a hijacking plot after “every freak in the universe” takes over a plane in an effort to make a daring escape.

Con Air’s over-the-top premise makes for some non-stop entertainment, but Cage approaches the wacky material with stone-faced bravado and a laconic Southern drawl. Considering that he’s an actor who’s known for turning up the volume at any given moment, it’s great to see him play it straight in a movie that’s so inherently off the rails.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.