Big budget Hollywood movies don’t get any more effective than Robert Butler’s 1997 movie “Turbulence”, starring Ray Liotta (“John Q.”) as a psychopath with a propensity for strangling hapless women. After serial killer Weaver (Liotta) is captured, he is put on a plane with a skeleton passenger list back to California, and for a prime spot on Death Row. Along the way trouble ensues and Weaver is freed while the U.S. Marshals escorting him ends up dead. The only person who can stop Weaver from crashing the plane into LAX is flight attendant Teri (Lauren Holly, “Dragon”), who isn’t exactly up to the task.
What makes “Turbulence” such a good movie is its setup: Weaver is a cunning and smart man, highly manipulative and sharp. Teri, on the other hand, doesn’t seem like the brightest bulb in the bunch. Once Weaver has taken command of the plane and locked up the rest of the passengers, Teri is the only person left to stop him, which, at first glance, doesn’t bold well for a safe landing. The movie sets up Teri as being so outmatched intellectually and physically that it seems impossible she can defeat Weaver.
“Turbulence” is essentially a Die Hard On a… movie, with a plane in lieu of a building occupied by terrorists. Instead of an everyman (as is often the case in these movies), our hero is everywoman Teri, who is forced to face a situation she is ill-prepared for. The presence of buffoonish FBI agents is a given, and so is the supportive local cop, in this case Hector Elizondo (“How High”) as the cop who arrested Weaver in the first place. Rachel Ticotin (“Desert Saints”) also lends support as a friendly flight controller. Up against the world and then some, you know Teri will, in the end, triumph against the overly confident Weaver.
Speaking of Weaver, the film makes its biggest blunder with his character. After taking over the plane, it is Weaver’s intention to crash it into LAX and kill Hines as his last act, reasoning that he’ll die anyway if he returns in one piece. But the real question is this: If Weaver is so smart, why didn’t he figure out that the much better way to avoid Death Row is not just to crash the plane, but to grab a parachute and jump off the 747 before it crashes. It would take the authorities days to figure out that he had escaped, and by then he would be a free man. You’d think such a brilliant killer would figure out this little loophole, even if screenwriter Jonathan Brett didn’t.
Robert Butler directs “Turbulence” with a plan. Once Weaver successfully commandeers the plane, Butler and cinematographer Lloyd Ahern turns the plane into a rollercoaster ride going through a long, dark tunnel. The large 747 is constantly moving and consistently bathed in patches of shadows, sometimes complete darkness, and a healthy dose of doom and gloom. The atmosphere is unpredictable and tumultuous, which is probably what Butler was going for.
Although it’s easy to sympathize with Teri despite a couple of boneheaded moves on her part (Never trust a serial killer!), “Turbulence” is really a vehicle for Liotta, who chews scenery whenever he’s onscreen. Ray Liotta is so good that when the screenplay was trying to convince us that Weaver might not have been guilty of the crimes he was convicted of, we actually consider it. This, of course, becomes a moot point because, if you’ve seen the trailer or heard of the movie, you know Weaver is 100% guilty. But it’s to Liotta’s credit that there was even a question as to his character’s guilt at all.
Another interesting aspect of “Turbulence” is Elizondo’s Hines, who may or may not have planted the evidence that convicted Weaver. Hines is written as a good cop, but one that is not above seeking fame and glory for his work. Knowing this, maybe Weaver’s decision to crash the plane instead of making an easy getaway is understandable?
Robert Butler (director) / Jonathan Brett (screenplay)
CAST: Ray Liotta …. Ryan Weaver
Lauren Holly …. Teri Halloran
Brendan Gleeson …. Stubbs
Hector Elizondo …. Lt. Aldo Hines
Rachel Ticotin …. Rachel Taper