Producer: Steven Paul   Director: James Bamford   Screenplay: Steven Paul   Cast:  Katherine McNamara, Ian Bohen, Rade Šerbedžija, Anthony Michael Hall, Paul S. Tracey, Dascha Polanco, Hristo Mitzkov, Antony Davidov and Ivo Ariakov   Distributor: Paramount Global/Republic Pictures

Grade:  D+

James Bamford’s “Air Force One Down” is not Wolfgang Petersen’s “Air Force One,” in more ways than one.  The 1997 film was, whatever its flaws, an exciting, polished, if rather absurd thriller; the new movie is a feeble little piece trying unsuccessfully to act like a major action flick, and distinguishing itself from the older movie by adding the “Down” (presumably aping Roland Emmerich’s 2013 Channing Tatum-Jamie Foxx movie “White House Down”) as a titular bonus.

The silly plot devised by Steven Paul is predicated on the notion that recently elected American President Edwards (Ian Bohen) has entered into an energy deal with a fictional oil-rich Eastern European country called Astovia, despite the concerns of some of his political advisors, which are dutifully fended off by Chief of Staff Miller (Paul S. Tracey).  Simultaneously Secret Service head Sam Waitman (Anthony Michael Hall) has invited his niece Allison Miles (Katherine McNamara), an experienced soldier, to join his team, and she agrees, despite writing off Edwards as an over-privileged nonentity.  She’s quickly enlisted to join the contingent of agents that will travel with Edwards to Astovia aboard Air Force One to sign the agreement.

She’s gotten the assignment because unbeknownst to either of her Uncle Sams, Rodinov (Rade Šerbedžija, spelled in the closing credits as Sherbedgia), a rogue Astovian general who considers the deal an insult to his country’s national pride, has planned a takeover of the plane by simply replacing major figures on it—the pilot, several agents, some accompanying journalists—with his own murderous men, all well-armed, with no one noticing the switches.  Despite Allison’s efforts—she excels in hand-to-hand combat, as she demonstrates in several fights—they seize control of the aircraft, sending false data back to flight tracker in the States to keep the US government in the dark about what’s happening.  They also kill Waitman.

In the midst of the chaos aboard the plane, Allison and Edwards parachute into hostile Astovian territory and, after bonding rather intimately, are captured by Rodinov, whose plans have been upended when Vice-President Hansen (Dascha Polanco), an erstwhile opponent of the treaty whom he’d expected to cancel it, now reverses her stand in solidarity with Edwards.  Rodinov is forced to persuade Edwards to film a speech rescinding the pact, something the surprisingly resolute president refuses to do.  Meanwhile Allison, in another demonstration of combat facility, overcomes the muscular guards holding her captive and frees Edwards.  He in turn proves his mettle with both fists and firearms as they deal with Rodinov and his men, making their way to an extraction point where they can be rescued.

Paul and Bamford now play what they apparently consider an ace up their sleeves, a reversal that strains credulity well past the breaking point.  Had the twist involved a new explosion of action, they might have gotten away with it.  Instead it’s a talky, clumsily staged sequence that drains the movie of what little energy it has left. 

You have to admire McNamara’s commitment to her many combat scenes; her monotonous line readings reveal she’s not much of an actress, but she kicks and punches creditably.  And while Bohen is a might stiff, he carries off the president’s transformation from smugness to approachability reasonably well.  Rodinov is just a caricature of a Russian—sorry, Astovian—villain, but with a few smirks and eye-rolls Hall, a teen star for John Hughes many decades ago, shows that he’s not taking the material too seriously.

The movie was obviously made on the cheap—the supposedly cutting-edge equipment used to track the location of the plane looks like an old video-game monitor hauled out of someone’s garage—and the Bulgarian locations are not attractive, nor is Ivan Rangelov’s production design: the White House scenes aren’t terrible, but Rodinov’s compound looks like an abandoned warehouse.  But it’s kind of endearing how the designers and cinematographer Anton Bakarski try to add a feeling of authenticity with modest touches, like zooming in frantically to show the presidential seal on coffee cups or the seat belt buckles on what’s meant to pass for Air Force One.  Except for the fight sequences, the editing by Trevor Mirosh and Robert A. Ferretti bogs down badly in the movie’s second half on the ground, and Rich Walters’ score is a by-the-numbers affair, but they do what they can to instill some energy into what’s, despite its setting in the sky, mostly a mundane affair.

“Air Force One Down” doesn’t exactly crash and burn, but it stalls badly in mid-air and makes a very rocky landing.