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MOVIE REVIEW: Go see 'Flight' just for Denzel Washington's performance

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This film image released by Paramount Pictures shows Denzel Washington portraying Whip Whitaker in a scene from "Flight." Washington plays an airline pilot who, despite being hung-over, drunk and coked-up, manages to bring down a rapidly deteriorating plane in a daring emergency landing on what should have been a routine flight between Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta. (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Robert Zuckerman)

Flight

(R)

2 and 1/2 out of 4 stars

For the first 90 minutes of "Flight" Denzel Washington puts on an acting clinic and shows us just why he's one of the finest performers of his generation. As the grizzled and cocksure airplane pilot Whip Whitaker, Washington is charged with pulling off something only a very few could even attempt: Playing a protagonist we don't care for or respect. The opening half-hour of director Robert Zemekis' first live-action movie in a dozen years goes places where neither he nor Washington have gone before.

It's an early morning in Orlando after an all-night bender where Whip and a flight attendant have drunk, smoked and snorted copious amounts of drugs. Both have to be onboard for a flight to Atlanta in less than two hours but neither seems too worried. They've done this dance before.

Hiding behind shades and, later, a passe air of authentic bravado, Whip finds his talents challenged like never before when the mechanically questionable plane starts falling apart during a storm and even though he's still drinking, he is able to fly the plane upside down and land it in a field with a maneuver few if any other pilots could execute even while sober.

Losing just six of the 102 people aboard, Whip becomes an instant celebrity and national hero but behind the scenes, the unimpressed NTSB is going through their requisite post-crash procedures. Before anyone says anything, Whip is already sure what will be eventually discovered: He was unfit to fly and will likely be criminally responsible for multiple deaths.

At this point, we're roughly 30 minutes into the movie and have been given a superb setup. In addition to presenting probably the most convincing airplane crash scene ever committed to film, Zemekis and screenwriter John Gatins have tossed out an extraordinary moral/legal conundrum. Should the drunken Whip be given a pass for saving dozens of lives if only a handful of others were lost and no one else could have done better?

Although we don't know it yet, the narrative of "Flight" has peaked and the movie spends the better part of the next two hours treading water and basically going nowhere. On the upside, it's also the point where Washington's performance kicks into overdrive but even this comes with a notable caveat.

Playing an alcoholic/drunk is one of the most difficult -- and underappreciated -- challenges any actor could ever tackle. It's way harder than it looks, a point reinforced by famed lush Richard Burton, who once said playing drunk required him to be fully sober. The rest of the time -- when playing a sober character -- Burton chose to do so while drunk.

The filmmakers navigate the large middle chunk of the film fairly well. Kelly Reilly -- a gorgeous woman with a strong resemblance to Jessica Chastain -- co-stars as Nicole, a junkie/alcoholic party girl who meets Whip in the hospital after his accident and her overdose. A forced romance ensues, but it is Nicole's dedication to remaining clean that provides the optimism the story so desperately needs. Of the two, the Nicole character is less interesting but far more grounded in reality.

At the 100-minute mark -- the point where the movie should have ended -- the filmmakers take the story in a direction that some may call pathetic, others throttling and the remainder self-parody. Although obvious to all watching, the two characters charged with Whip's sobriety (Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle) blindly coddle him like a spoiled child and Whip reacts in kind.

The hot-and-cold aspect of the story is never more evident than with the bookend appearances of John Goodman as Harling, Whip's drug dealer. Ushered in both times with Rolling Stones songs, the Harling character offers welcomed comic relief at the start but -- with the exact same demeanor and attitude -- comes off as an obnoxious, opportunistic boor at the end.

Whatever serious commentary the movie has attempted to make regarding addiction is totally wiped out by what the Goodman and Washington characters -- and, by proxy, Whip's custodians -- do in the last act. Much the same can be said for the legal system (represented by Melissa Leo in an extended cameo) that at best can be labeled inept and at worst toxically corrupt.

Go see "Flight" for Washington and Washington alone. He's a lock for an Oscar nomination and will likely be a favorite -- as he should be. His is not the first great performance in an only average movie and sadly probably won't be the last. (Paramount)