Sky Kings

Drop Zone is an action movie with the requisite good guys and bad guys, zap and pow and ostensibly witty tough talk, and all of that ordinary action movie stuff is done well enough. But instead of pushing to go farther, faster or harder, Drop Zone distinguishes itself from the action pack with dreamy scenes of free-falling acrobatics.

At the center of the film is a skydiving subculture -- not surprising, considering that the director/producer of the movie is John Badham, an Englishman with a long list of credits for subculture flicks. Badham has already done disco (Saturday Night Fever), cyberpunk (War Games) and a rather dismal bicycle movie (American Flyer). Now he spices up this thriller with lunatics who jump out of perfectly good airplanes.

The plot, such as it is, has to do with a nebbish hacker who did some dirty work with drug money and wound up in federal custody. This Earl Leedy (Michael Jeter) is sprung by a bad guy named Ty Moncrief (Gary Busey), which is a fine moniker for a good-timing ratfink. Moncrief wants Leedy, who whines about everything, to do more dirty work. Federal Marshal Pete Nessip (Wesley Snipes) wants Leedy back. Since Moncrief and his gang are skydiving desperadoes, Nessip -- who of course has been suspended and is now working on his own because this one is personal -- must infiltrate the colorful world of skydivers.

Skydivers, Nessip discovers, are a bunch of psycho yahoos. They answer the question, "How do skydivers die?" with a smug, "Only once." When Nessip hooks up with Jessie Crossman (Yancy Butler), the world's greatest girl skydiver, he's in deep. The setting is the Florida Keys, a hot spot for drop zones -- i.e. areas in which to parachute. The divers are all colorful in their swoop suits, and their camaraderie and drinking habits are lovingly described.

On the ground, they're cute as hell; in free fall, they're stunning. Drop Zone has spectacular footage of every type of skydiving known to man or woman. Formation? Up to and including 34 skydivers making pretty patterns in the atmosphere. Night jumps? Through fireworks. BASE jumps? (BASE jumping is parachuting off of fixed objects -- buildings, antennas, bridges, cliffs.) Not only off of buildings, including a solo backward swan dive off scaffolding, but also jumping off of buildings and landing in moving trucks. Acrobatics? Jaw-dropping solo work by story co-author and skydiving supervisor Guy Manos and even better, profoundly beautiful stunts from his wife, Pam Manos, who does Crossman's in-air stunts.

Skydivers have about 80 seconds of free fall, play time, before they have to open their chutes. In her stunt work, Pam Manos dances at 200 miles per hour, flips and straightens out like an arrow and shoots toward the earth. I can't explain why the sight of a tiny woman rocketing toward the ground is exhilarating, but trust me: it is.

Even after completing this movie, Badham (who doesn't seem to have made any jumps himself) doesn't have any answers to the question of why skydivers do what they do. He does have a rhetorical question: "What makes a person soar thousands of feet in a drop plane, step out of an open door to leap voluntarily into the clear blue sky and dive head-first back to earth?" In explanation, if not exactly answer, he suggests, "A person might want to test the very limits of their physical and mental toughness, a person might want to feel the mind-blowing sensations of falling and flying, or a person might just be gonzo nuts." Badham's stars, Snipes, Butler, Busey and Jeter -- of whom the last two were jumpers before this film -- are all gonzo nuts.

As a nod to gonzo nuts in Texas, Badham cast the Crazy Flamingo, a pink Pilatis Porter whose vertical stabilizer is festooned with a bird cartoon, as one of his drop planes. The plane is based at Skydive Dallas, and many Texas skydivers know the Crazy Flamingo as "a great plane to jump from," which is an odd way to think of an aircraft. Drop Zone is an odd action film, though. Most action films have attempts at repartee and some gags, but the genuine, inspiring, feel-good, corny fun found here isn't usually part of the package.

People who couldn't give a rip about aerial acrobatics will likely enjoy Drop Zone as standard action fare. Chicks get punched. Copiers are lethal weapons. Malcolm-Jamal Warner is fat. There are gratuitous pelicans (in formation) and an amusing Mexican standoff.

For an R-rated movie, Drop Zone is actually quite clean; feel free to take the kids. (You can talk them out of skydiving by citing the prohibitive costs, around $200 for a first jump.) Drop Zone has almost no use of the F-word, no face-sucking and no unclothed Wesley Snipes. What Drop Zone does have is an entertaining mix of straight-on cops and robbers and amazing scenes of free falling; good enough reason to take the plunge.

Drop Zone.
Directed by John Badham. With Wesley Snipes and Gary Busey.
Rated R.

101 minutes.

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