`Pushing Tin' is all over the map

Review: This busy drama about air-traffic controllers on and off the job would be a lot better if it were about a lot less.

April 23, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

With an outstanding cast, accomplished director and irresistibly exciting backdrop, "Pushing Tin" should be the sleeper hit of the season, a sexy, taut action drama with intelligence and bite.

It's not.

Indeed, "Pushing Tin," which stars John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton as two hot-rod air traffic controllers, is probably the season's biggest disappointment so far. A hodgepodge of story lines and half-baked characters, this movie veers so wildly in emotional tone and focus that it is in constant danger, to use the controllers' parlance, of going down the pipes. And in one of its final scenes it does, when Cusack and Thornton are shown in a stupid stunt that makes these two fine actors look like refugees from "Dumb and Dumber."

Cusack plays Nick Falzone, who "pushes tin" at New York's Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), where controllers guide 7,000 airplanes a day to safe landings at LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark airports.

Nick, who is called "the Zone," is the flashiest cowboy among a group of colorfully neurotic characters. He oversees landings at Newark -- the busiest airport in the nation's busiest airspace -- with a jiggling leg, sarcastic asides to his co-workers, occasional operatic outbursts and a Joycean patter of instructions to his planes, which he jockeys and finesses and cajoles into formation, eventually lining them up for landing "just like Rockettes."

The Zone's reign as alpha male at TRACON is threatened by the arrival of Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), who drives a Triumph motorcycle, dresses like Johnny Cash and tucks an eagle feather behind his headset when he's at the scopes, in deference to his Choctaw heritage. Quiet, imposing and legendary -- he once stood under a 747 while it took off just to see what it felt like -- Bell isn't just the Man. He's the SHAman.

And that really ticks off the Zone, who desperately looks for ways to mess with Bell's mind. Eventually the search leads to Bell's voluptuous wife, played by Angelina Jolie. It's right about here that "Pushing Tin" banks steeply to the left, almost off the radar screen.

When Bell turns his attentions to the Zone's wife, played by Cate Blanchett, "Pushing Tin" engages in some serious shape-shifting, from hair-raising psychological drama to misguided sex farce. In between it's a quirky male-bonding comedy and an action thriller, when a blizzard and a bomb threat give Bell and the Zone a chance to vie for hero du jour.

The inconsistency is too much for Cusack and Thornton, both of whom deliver terrifically focused performances here, resulting in a rivalry of convincingly frictional heat.

Although it's anyone's guess how gripping "Pushing Tin" might have been with a decent story, you get a sense of its potential during those scenes when Newell nimbly cuts between the tense day-to-day inside TRACON with serene shots of floating airplanes outside, a surreal juxtaposition given pulse-quickening energy by Anne Dudley's musical score.

This is when "Pushing Tin" best captures its high-test, high-stakes world. If only Newell and the film's screenwriters had lined their movie up half as well as these jocks working the friendly skies, "Pushing Tin" might have been one heck of a fun ride.

`Pushing Tin'

'Starring John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie

Directed by Mike Newell

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated R (language, a scene of sexuality)

Running time: 122 minutes

Sun score: * *

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