Principal Cast : Charlie Sheen, Nastassja Kinski, James Gandolfini, Christopher McDonald, Gary Bullock, Hans Howes, Melvin Van Peebles, Margaret Colin, Cathryn de Prume, Suli McCullough, Rance Howard, Sofia Shinas.
Synopsis: A maverick skydiver and a former KGB agent team up to stop the Russian mafia from stealing gold.
Utter nonsense doesn’t come any more nonsensical than Deran Safarian’s 1994 action thriller Terminal Velocity, a mid-90’s Charlie Sheen vehicle that released barely three months before that year’s other skydiving themed entry, the equally nonsensical Wesley Snipes actioner Drop Zone. It’s fair to say that both films waste their potential for extreme sport thrills pretty much from the get-go, although it must be said the more than adequate screen charisma of Sheen, together with the garrulous Nastassja Kinski opposite him, offers a slight needle-quiver more audience engagement. The egregiously silly David Twohy (Pitch Black) screenplay flavours in Cold War undertones and a predictably 90’s-era sense of style, and Safarian’s direction is roundly above-average, but Terminal Velocity’s cavalier body count, ridiculous dialogue and intelligence-free plot twists will leave you decidedly ambivalent to its charms.
Former Olympic gymnast-turned-skydiving instructor Richard “Ditch” Brodie (Sheen – The Wraith) is thrust into an international conspiracy when a young, beautiful woman, Chris Morrow (Kinski – Cat People, Paris Texas) engages him for hew first parachute jump, only to seemingly be killed when her chute fails to open. Sensing something is off about the accident, which shuts down his skydiving business, Ditch tracks down Chris’s shady past involving violent Russian mobsters, notably sadistic henchman Kerr (Christopher McDonald – Happy Gilmore) and his boss, who masquerades as the local Deputy District Attorney, Ben Pinkwater (James Gandolfini – The Sporanos). Surprised to find Chris alive, Ditch learns that she’s a rogue former KBG agent intent on salvaging an enormous cargo of Russia gold bullion, in order to prevent a coup and the resurgence of the Cold War between the USSR and America.
Terminal Velocity is almost – almost, mind you – worth a look simply to hear Charlie Sheen, one-time television legend now Hollywood tragedy utter the immortal line: “I’m not just a walking penis, I’m a flying penis!”. Yep, that’s the level of intelligence at play in this film, ostensibly an excuse for more high-flying parachute antics that I seem to recall left audiences gasping for their money back upon leaving the cinema, and were it not for Sheen’s acutely gormless presence the film would, pun absolutely intended, fall utterly flat. Believing Kinski is a Russian operative isn’t a stretch, but believing Sheen as a former Olympian (it’s the worst subplot in a film with a chasm of indifference between plot and character) is less so, because it makes not a jot of difference to the film’s outcome. The plot, for want of a better descriptor, plunges us into the action early with a opening sequence in which Christopher McDonald’s violent Kerr assaults, nearly drowns, and murders Chris’ roommate, before we get our eyes on Sheen’s appallingly named Ditch Brodie, nomenclature designed for quick and easy recall by an audience no doubt set to sleep through much of this.
The chemistry between Sheen and Kinski ranges from charming to flat-out absent, with Sheen’s character apparently unable to avoid getting mixed up into this preposterous plot instead of just walking away (which is what I would have done), in spite of her continued antagonism of him throughout. Their “romance” is born of combative intimacy if you can believe it, although and real friction of lust between them is entirely one-sided for the majority of the film before the legitimately exciting climactic free-fall sequence, which sees Kinski’s character stuck in the trunk of a Cadillac plummeting to Earth whilst Sheen attempts to open it with a key. Kinski isn’t served well with this script, a generic join-the-dots walking cliche designed not to enhance the story but merely accessorise the leading man, which it doesn’t really do. Sheen, for all his machismo, holds the film together with significant wobbles, although his cheese-eating grin and ready-with-a-quip cheekiness certainly liven proceedings up.
Similarly to Gary Busey’s all-teeth villainy in Drop Zone, Safarian’s film hangs a lot on having a decent bad guy, and in this case it has two – the conniving James Gandolfini, chipped tooth and all, and Chris McDonald’s blonde Kerr, a human wrecking ball of murder and brutality. Together they work in concert as eponymous 90’s bad guys, hissing and leering at the screen with spittle and bulging masculinity to see who can possibly be the biggest asshole (hint, it’s McDonald by a mile) although the film’s central plot isn’t particularly clear, making their machinations muddy with regards to purpose. A late act espionage exposition dump by Kinski is meant to inspire Ditch’s sense of patriotism but all it does is bring the film to a grinding halt, asking the audience to lurch into geopolitical fantasy when all along we’ve been happy to go with people jumping continuously out of planes or off high perches. Gandolfini might be the architect, but McDonald’s physicality and sheer grunt work salvage much on the bad guy side of the ledger.
Safarian, whose best known work prior to Terminal Velocity was Van Damme’s Death Warrant in 1990, has since moved heavily into directing television (among his credits, stints on shows like Lost, Blue Bloods, Swamp Thing and Project Blue Book), but his skill behind the camera isn’t something to snicker at, despite the pulpy genre sensibility he brings to the film. His sense of action is pretty decent, the editing (by Oscar nominee Frank J Urioste – RoboCop, Die Hard, Basic Instinct) not letting him down either, whilst Joel McNeely’s accompanying score could best be described as adequate. The skydiving sequences feel more energetic than those in Drop Zone, even though they utilise similar technology to achieve them, and the stunt work on the film is absolutely first rate. There’s some nice explosions and moments of utter lunacy sprinkled throughout, including an eye-watering moment Sheen and Kinski ride some kind of jet-propelled rocket car to escape almost certain death, which leaves you agog with just how insane this movie is. The film’s finale, the aforementioned plummeting Cadillac sequence, is a highlight and trumps almost every other scene in the film for sheer excitement, trying hard to make the previous 90-off minutes tolerable for their comparative inadequacy.
Jokes could be made about the film’s title and Sheen’s subsequent career trajectory, but I will decline to stoop to that level. Terminal Velocity is a pretty barnstorming action film entry that entertains in the most mild, juvenile way and offers Charlie Sheen as a straight-up action hero rather than the Hot Shots! comedy junkie he was leaning into at the time. Whilst Chuck is halfway decent in this, abetted competently by a wooden Kinski, the film’s key selling point – the action sequences – come thick and fast in this ripe concoction of preposterous idiocy disguised as global conspiracy. It’s easy to laugh at a film like this rather than with it, but for a glorious piece of 90’s cheese look no father than this vertiginous actioner that blasts past your eyeballs and off into the dustbin of amnesia.