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Whoever’s at the helm, a Jackie Chan movie is going to look like other Jackie Chan movies and not much else. This is a very good thing. In Operation Condor, Chan directs himself as an adventurous secret agent code-named Condor, but the picture’s a close kin of the movies in which others direct him as a Hong Kong cop code-named Jackie. With his agile, fine-tuned body and goofy sense of fun, in the quest for the ultimate moviehouse entertainment, Jackie Chan is an international treasure.

Operation Condor boasts a plot of sorts, and I am happy to say it is the first unserious action flick in ages that isn’t about a nuclear warhead stolen by the Russian mob. It’s about looted gold hidden in the desert by the Nazis, which is causing all sorts of international strife because not only can’t postwar forces find the stuff, but they won’t know who to give it to when they do. Enter the man they’re supposed to call Condor but keep forgetting to address as such in the typically horrendous voice-overs; he’s been hired by the UN as a neutral agent to find the gold and return it safely to the peacekeeping organization. Really, no one could hate this movie except John Birchers, and they’re as plentiful as condors these days.

Operation Condor is more Bondian than Chan’s Hong Kong cop flicks; it even has hot chicks—Elsa (Eva Cobo de Garcia), the blond, mouthbreathing granddaughter of the German officer who led the gold-hiding troops, and Ada (Carol Cheng), Jackie’s no-nonsense UN caretaker, who proves more pussycat than tiger when the heat is on. Later, they meet up with a monumental coincidence in the pleasing shape of Momoko (Shoko Ikeda), a North African woman who happens to have all kinds of special knowledge about the buried treasure and whom, apparently, fate never threw in the path of any previous gold-seekers.

The faux-Moroccan sets are stunning, as are the cartoonish caricatures of generic Evil Arabs (and untrustworthy, obsequious North Africans) and the dubbed-in dialogue the girls utter while they huddle against a wall watching Jackie defend their lives—”Jackie, you’re amazing.” “We’re afraid.” But a Jackie Chan movie is about the beautiful, balletic action, and Operation Condor has some of the best. During its spare 90 minutes, Jackie leads pursuers on a merry chase through the streets of Spain on a motorcycle, engages in an apocalyptic riot in a Moroccan inn that’s all balconies and staircases, and battles one hell of a wind machine.

The obviously expensive and time-consuming climactic sequence is milked for every penny, and thus its spectacularity dims over the course of its big effects being repeated too often. But as usual, Chan’s most valuable talent is absorbing us completely in the rhythm of his movements, so that we flinch, gasp, and, finally, laugh with relief along with him.

There’s so much wrong with Wolfgang Petersen’s Air Force One: the psychologies are screwy, the characterizations are flat, the whole thing is unshapely and off-balance. There are setups that never pan out, trivialities whose explanations add length and drag, and human deaths that are treated with the utmost cheapness, as jokes or, worse, inconsequentialities. The women are gibbering weaklings, the terrorists are all the most unconvincing type of sinister buffoon, and the big ending is handled with cheesy computer graphics so you don’t even get the satisfaction of watching Air Force One, the plane, self-destruct.

But Petersen has still made a tremendously exciting and enjoyable film, which is probably morally worse than making the bad film these elements seem to ensure—it provides more evidence that exciting and enjoyable movies don’t have to be good, they just have to push the audience’s buttons.

What the audience wants is a real hero, not a lovable schlub or a lucky everyman but a solid, manly, salt-and-pepper-haired hero who already has a hero’s job, and then acquits himself in it, to the relief of the people who gave him that job. Air Force One brings back the idea of the invulnerable rogue good guy, in the extraordinary form of the U.S. president, in this case, Harrison Ford as James Marshall. The president as free world-saving hero; the idea is so touching and old-fashioned that only a German would buy it.

President Marshall is returning from Russia, where a joint Russian-American effort has captured a Kazakhstan tyrant. Six pro-breakaway terrorists disguised as a Russian TV crew board Air Force One and, with the help of a Marshall team mole, hold the passengers hostage while negotiating with the White House for the tyrant’s release.

Everyone thinks the president has made it out in the escape pod, but he’s actually lone-wolfing it in the plane’s lower hold while his wife (Wendy Crewson), daughter Alice (Liesel Matthews), and various administration biggies cower in a conference room. Meanwhile, down on the ground, Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) and the rest of the admin biggies occupy another conference room, where they design and scrap various rescue missions. The terrorists are killing a hostage every half-hour, and no rescue is plausible, so the president, once a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, is left to singlehandedly defend the country and save his family.

First of all, the Secret Service should know better than to let Gary Oldman on a plane, any plane. As the head terrorist, he’s the usual menacing rat-genius. (Is there some sort of scramble every year in which the studios divvy up screen psychos for the next year? “We’ve got Oldman!” “We’ve got Dafoe!” “We’ve got Hopper!”) Oldman makes silly speeches about his love for Mother Russia, meaning the screenwriter (Andrew W. Marlowe) couldn’t think up an enemy formidable enough for this post-Cold War scenario, so he’s using…Communism! It makes you wonder what John Le Carré got so worried about with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Air Force One is all exposition; it’s like a very long trailer for itself. Characters keep telling us things as if the situation isn’t dramatic enough—”I’m not leaving without my family!,” “The president is on that plane!,” “You’re nothing like my father!” Handy stuff like that.

The morals of this thing are exceedingly shaky. Just after giving a newsmaking speech about not negotiating with terrorists, the president caves and releases the bad general. In doing so, he breaks his promise to the world, but if this is the choice we’re supposed to believe is right, fine—after all, Marshall’s little girl was in danger. But he reneges on that halfway through, assassinating the tyrant in a Bonnie and Clyde style hail of bullets, which is less than sporting. Not to mention that on the ground, the brave and strong-minded veep is made out to be heroic for not signing an order (compiled by the Al Haiglike secretary of defense, played by Dean Stockwell) that would override the president’s refusal (as far as they know) to negotiate with terrorists! (Simply put, she garners a round of applause for giving the weasels what they want.) It’s like one of those state initiatives where a “no” vote is in the proposition’s favor.

Marshall may be desperate to defend his family, but he doesn’t get much help from his wife, whose only talents seem to be cringing, not shooting a loaded gun, and not protecting her daughter. The script sets up a future for the brave girl to prove herself—she complains to Dad that she’s not too young to visit refugee camps and that he underestimates her—but nothing comes of it. When the press secretary is about to be murdered before her eyes, no one thinks to say, “Alice, don’t look,” and Mom even lets the little one watch while the terrorist slaps her Daddy around.

In spite of everything, though, Air Force One is gripping and effective. Petersen sustains the nail-biting strain throughout, and even if the movie squanders Air Force One’s valuable resources as a plane that is not like other planes (Marshall’s ingenuity is restricted to shooting people and holding on tight; well, the fax machine comes in handy), it finds countless ways to keep the plot hopping and the tension excruciating within its confines. And it has a great hero.

In the parallel universe of American movies—not the movies as we see them but as they exist playing out a shadow version of the America we live in—Harrison Ford is president. He should always play the president. He’s the perfect tough-talking left-wing hawk, infinitely more useful than that Clinton fellow now that the Republicans’ worst fears are confirmed and the Democrats have been hopelessly disappointed and even the aliens in Contact surely find him waffling and insincere.

Ford is terribly handsome, but in a way that makes you hope his wife appreciates him. And poised…? He could probably hold off a planeload of terrorists without even taking off his jacket. That sounds like a metaphor for what we go to movies to see, only in Petersen’s dizzying, underbaked, and over-the-top thriller, that’s exactly what we get.CP