As brainless Die Hard clones go, Passenger 57 is lucky: It has a real actor for a star. Wesley Snipes plays the main character, a former Secret Service agent named John Cutter, who happens to be on a passenger plane when it's hijacked by terrorists. Since debuting in the late '80s, Snipes has had a career that dances niftily around typecastin he can play hero or heavy with ease. Initially his build won him small roles as an athlete in Wildcats, Major League, and Streets of Gold, but the next two supporting parts proved to be springboards. His streetwise cop in Abel Ferrara's gritty The King of New York seemed to lead naturally to Nino Brown, the flamboyant drug bigwig of Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City. And a sharply observed performance as a jazzbo rival to Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues led to Snipes' playing the lead in Lee's Jungle Fever: a callow, charismatic buppie who pays hard when he slips adulterously across the racial divide.
Snipes made three films in 1992, each with something totally different at stake. The ingratiating basketball comedy White Men Can't Jump is a buddy movie dependent on rowdy salt-and-pepper interplay with Woody Harrelson. In the affecting drama The Waterdance, Snipes is barely recognizable as a wry, self-pitying paraplegic who befriends a similarly disabled character played by Eric Stoltz. Then there's Passenger 57, which lets him go it alone in a role that could have been written for a Willis, a Stallone, or a Costner. And in this one, Snipes is.. careful.
Granted, Cutter is meant to be faster with his hands and feet than with his mouth, but the star plays so close to the vest, he's nearly generic. So's the rest of the movie. Plot elements are functional and perfunctory: Bad guy Charles Rane (Bruce Payne) is an epicene Euro-terrorist in the mold of Die Hard's Alan Rickman; Cutter's action-hero gymnastics on and off the airplane recall Die Hard 2; more important, the fact that Cutter has to fight both terrorists and pigheaded bureaucrats mimics the little-guy-against-the-system righteousness of Bruce Willis' John McClane.
But Cutter is a black little guy against a white system, and that loads Passenger 57 with more baggage than a jumbo jet. In fact, to see this movie on video is to become wise to the ways in which the film industry covers its ass. Here's a big commercial thriller that casts a black actor as the hero and pretends that it's no big deal. But if you can read between the punches easy to do, since like most action extravaganzas Passenger 57 gets out of your face as it moves out of the theater and on to the tube the movie reveals a caution that's fascinating for what it says about Hollywood's take on the world. It's like a weirdly wrongheaded demographics experiment, asking unasked-for questions like, must an action film starring a black man by nature appeal only to black audiences? If so, what would it take to destigmatize it for ''mainstream'' (i.e., white) audiences? And does it matter if the story line gets lost in the fine-tuning?
On one hand, the moviemakers ghettoize Passenger 57 with updated blaxploitation trappings: a ''funky'' score by '70s jazz-rocker Stanley Clarke, a dim Southern sheriff named Biggs (as in bigot) for Cutter to insult and befriend. On the other hand, it throws white audiences a safety net in the form of Cutter's best buddy, an airline security honcho who helps the airborne hero from the ground. The character's named Sly (as in Stallone) and is played by Tom Sizemore in a bald-faced lounge-impersonation of Bruce Willis, right down to the buzz cut and whiskey voice. It's a calculated sop that shines like a klieg light against Passenger 57's dim and formulaic biff-bang-boom.
Obviously, Wesley Snipes wants to do more with the action genre. He has a new shoot-'em-up, called Boiling Point, coming to theaters this week; the poster shows him in the classic big-bad-hero-with-a-gun pose. I wish him luck. ; Maybe this time he'll be able to wear the white hat without compromises. C