Principal Cast : Wesley Snipes, Gary Busey, Yancy Butler, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Kyle Secor, Rex Linn, Grace Zabriskie, Corin Nemec, Claire Stansfield, Mickey Jones, Robert LaSardo, Michael Jeter, Andy Romano, Luca Bercovici.
Synopsis: A tough cop teams up with a professional skydiver to capture a renegade computer hacker on the run from the law.
The 1990’s were a great time to be an action star, and an even better time to be Wesley Snipes. Despite not a single definable trait that his contemporaries had, Snipes starred in a number of hugely successful action films, including Passenger 57, Demolition Man, and the Blade franchise. Whereas Stallone and Schwarzenegger had a definite X-factor, be it accent, stature, or some other physicality to trade with, Snipes was a fairly straight-up bland action lead, a subset of the hardass Steven Segal archetype without the swagger. And Drop Zone, for all its glorious 90’s goodness, sits right in that middle ground of mindless bland sufferance, an empty spectacle with a bombastic Hans Zimmer score and John Badham’s kitschy action sequences. Oh, watching it again recently was a blast, mainly because of its simpler-times aesthetic, Gary Busey’s all-teeth performance, and some cool skydiving footage, but you’d hardly describe it as a good film.
US Marshall Pete Nessip (Snipes) and his brother Terry (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) are accompanying computer whizz prisoner Earl Leedy (Michael Jeter – Waterworld) aboard a jet airliner when it is hijacked by a gang of ruthless killers, led by former DEA agent Ty Moncrief (Gary Busey – Predator 2, Under Seige), in order to kidnap the prisoner and use him for their own nefarious purposes. They blow a hole in the side of the plane and escape using parachutes. In doing so, Terry is killed, leaving Pete stricken by a desire for revenge, heightened when the FBI declares the near disaster an “accident”, as nobody has ever parachuted from 30,000 feet to escape. Pete begins to work the case, joining former pro skydiver Jessie Crossman (Yancy Butler – Kick-Ass, Hard Target) and her team to learn the ropes and find out what Moncrief’s gang is after.
Drop Zone is a crackerjack 90’s action film. The story is preposterous, a high-concept thriller focusing on an specific extreme sport, written by Peter Barsocchini and John Bishop, and it contains all the prerequisites for the genre in abundance: an out-of-his-depth leading character, bend on retribution, a beautiful but entirely unbelievable leading lady (Yancy Butler is terminally miscast) and a gathering of memorable supporting players (among others, Rex Linn, Kyle Secor, Corin Nemec and Michael Jeter all have fun here) and a suave, sophisticated but utterly insane villain with a hugely overcomplicated plot that hinges on its singular premise – skydiving was the flavour of 1994, apparently, with the Charlie Sheen vehicle Terminal Velocity arriving three months prior with pretty much the same idea. The story here isn’t very smart or even particularly well thought out, but it does offer journeyman director John Badham (War Games, Short Circuit) the opportunity to work in the big leagues with straight-up action, even if the result is perhaps less than stellar.
Skydiving is a sport I’ve never been a huge fan of, in truth. After all, it appears to be an utter waste of a perfectly good plane ride. Drop Zone cannily funnels the sport’s life-and-death sense of euphoric challenge into a legitimately supercharged plot device that, more often than not, works. There are several sequences involving the skydiving motif and they are absolutely riveting – one, in which a member of Jessie’s team is plummeting to his death, evokes one of Hans Zimmer’s most iconic trailer cues – and although their integration into the story is obviously in service to using the plot device in the first place, Badham and his team make it feel like there’s a naturalness in play we’re glad to be a part of.
The rest of the action works right into Snipes’ wheelhouse, a rousing, bruising collection of hand-to-hand combat and gunplay sequences that personify 90’s editorial and cinematographic virtuosity. Snipes is the only one with an ability to look good fighting on camera, though, and the unfortunate side-effect of this is that a large majority of the close quarters work is laughably poor, even with Badham’s above-average camerawork. Watching Luca Bercovici, as Gary Busey’s evil henchwoman, and Yancy Butler go toe-to-toe in a third act climactic office cube farm brawl is hilariously awful, but both actresses play it seriously enough to make the resulting victory work, whilst Gary Busey’s snarling, scenery-chewing work is top-notch kitschy villainy. He might feel right at home in the 60’s Batman television show, he’s so cheesy.
In terms of emotional gravitas, the film plays fast and loose with people’s emotions, even Snipes’. The sense of revenge or retribution Snipes’ character engages in early lapses into a by-the-book sense of duty, and in attempting to turn this into a Hans Gruber-John McLane dynamic Drop Zone fumbles badly in this regard. Busey is in a different film entirely to everyone else, he’s so over-the-top, and his casual violence and attitude to his gang would see him usurped by those very same people in modern cinema. As mentioned, Yancy Butler is grossly miscast even if she is absolutely gorgeous, and her rapport with her on-screen team is tangible, but at no point did I ever believe she was some kind of skydiving marvel, and the tenuous relationships built within the film’s archly vapid constructs lack coherence or a sense of realism. There’s humour and gags mixed with the wanton violence, and the film’s obnoxious pacing and complete lack of depth will both appal and satiate a casual bloodlust.
Mind you, Drop Zone never attempts to be realistic. It’s pure 90’s action porn, a wildly energetic, tone-deaf and overplayed thriller-crime plot with indifferent ground-based action and truly gasp-inducing airborne antics. It’s incredibly dated and firmly rooted in the decade in which it was made, and Snipes’ work isn’t particularly memorable despite his enormous head being plastered on every piece of marketing you can find, but there’s a sense of nostalgic joy to be had giving this archaic classic a run. You tend to find yourself laughing at it moreso than with it, more often than not, but with a plot this silly you’d have to be a real grump to outright hate it.