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'Flight' review: Stuck in first gear

** (out of four)

Boy, motion-capture technology has come a long way. In “Flight,” that really looks like Denzel Washington.

Just kidding. For the first time since 2000’s “Cast Away,” Chicago-native director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”) returns to the land of the living. Following failed motion-capture experiments “The Polar Express” and “A Christmas Carol,” he’s chosen to direct a script from a guy whose credits include “Real Steel” and “Summer Catch.” Maybe that's why the already overrated “Flight” lands sooner than it should.

Washington stars as a pilot known as Whip, whose alcoholism and drug abuse apparently haven't previously resulted in problems on the job. The vodka and cocaine do nothing to hinder his ability to perform a brilliant maneuver and save all but six of 102 passengers and crew when the plane malfunctions in mid-air. As a lawyer from Chicago (Don Cheadle) indicates, death requires responsibility, so he works to suppress Whip's toxicology report that would almost certainly send him to prison for manslaughter—despite the 96 lives he saved.

It's great to see Washington returning to a role with something underneath the bluster, but “Flight” has no mystery. We know what Whip did. The question is only whether his guilt or addiction will affect whether he gets caught. His relationship with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict he meets in a hospital stairwell, couldn't be less convincing, and the movie shows little interest in Nicole's drug problem. Compared to the recent “Smashed” (among many other similar tales), the presentation of addiction in “Flight” looks awfully superficial, focusing only on the need to recognize you have a problem and suggesting that it's smooth sailing from there.

Washington's well served by a part that asks him to act, not just save the day. (The sequence of the plane taking a nose dive will have you holding onto your seat.) But Zemeckis seems out of practice, amateurishly zooming in on tears and bluntly setting a drug-taking scene to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” along with other groan-worthy musical cues. Writer John Gatins neglects to analyze the culture of pilot worship and tries to make a big deal out of a central relationship without actually honoring the details behind it. (That would be Whip’s relationship with a flight attendant played by Chicago native Nadine Velazquez of “The League,” who is gratuitously shown fully naked in the film's opening.)

All the way through to a cheap ending, Zemeckis uneasily manipulates character emotions and emphasizes bland discussions of God. One character asks about the crash, “Whose God would do this?” Another cries, “Praise Jesus!” “Flight” does nothing to explore the gray area between those perspectives.

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