Is there anything Denzel Washington can't do? As an actor, he's tackled such diverse roles as a level-headed submarine officer, a homophobic lawyer, a crooked narcotics cop and a number of real-life figures, including Malcolm X and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.
Now in "Flight," the first live-action film directed by Robert Zemeckis in more than a decade, Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, a substance-abusing airline pilot who pulls off a miraculous crash-landing but faces dire consequences for flying drunk.
The film is earning mostly favorable reviews, with many critics highlighting Washington's performance and a harrowing crash scene as "Flight's" strongest elements.
Times' film critic Kenneth Turan writes that Washington delivers a "commanding performance" that both lifts the film and exposes its shortcomings. He adds, "Washington, as always, is expert at creating a complex character who is both wary and worried, a man who not only flies airplanes but is in flight from his life. Unfortunately, the story that surrounds Whitaker is not as subtle or involving as his performance." After the tense, technically impressive crash sequence, Turan says, the film veers in a "familiar and formulaic direction" about an addict battling his demons.
The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle also commends "Flight's" crash sequence, which "must go down as one of the strongest single scenes of 2012: It's extended, detailed, technically and emotionally realistic, and beyond that, it reveals character." From there, LaSalle says, the film largely holds up, with strong performances by Washington and costar Kelly Reilly, who plays a recovering heroin addict. Alas, the film's landing isn't a smooth one: "The last 15 minutes are off," LaSalle says. "That ending is just not the right ending." Still, the film "deserves to be seen."
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis gives another positive review, writing that "Zemeckis is in very fine form" and calling "Flight" the director's "best movie since 'Cast Away.'" The plane crash is "freakishly real" and "a showstopper," but other more subdued scenes, including an efficient opener set in a hotel room, succeed as well. That's not to say it's a flawless outing: At times, "Mr. Zemeckis dilutes his movie’s power, notably with broad comedy and predictable sermonizing." For his part, Washington is "titanic," showing both an "erotically hyped-up" magnetism and something darker as an "ugly, mean, angrily unrepentant drunk."
The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert offers superlatives for both Washington, who gives "a brave and tortured performance … one of his very best," and for the crash sequence, "one of the most terrifying flying scenes I've witnessed." Ebert also has kudos for the supporting actors, including Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood and John Goodman, and concludes that the film "is nearly flawless."
The Boston Globe's Wesley Morris is much more measured, calling "Flight" "a so-so movie" right off the bat and adding, "The script, by John Gatins, fails to invent a single character you couldn’t find in a televised episode of anything." Particularly ill-advised, Morris says, is Reilly's subplot, which nearly prompted the reviewer to throw his notebook at the screen. All that said, "Flight" does have an ace up its sleeve, and it's Washington. The actor, Morris says, "is at his best when he’s playing complicated men, when he doesn’t care about what we think, when he can use the wattage of his stardom to sell us the subtle social work of his acting," and that's what he does again in "Flight."
And there you have it: Whether saving a doomed plane or shouldering yet another drama, for Washington, it's all in a day's work.