Producers: Autumn Bailey-Ford, Roma Downey and Karl Horstmann Director: Sean McNamara Screenplay: Brian Egeston Cast: Dennis Quaid, Heather Graham, Jesse Metcalfe, Brett Rice, Rocky Myers, Abigail Rhyne, Jessi Case, Anna Enger Ritch, Raina Grey, Selena Anduze, E. Roger Mitchell, Joe Knezevich, Brandon Quinn, Roger Anthony, Trayce Malachi, Anna Enger Ritch, Wilbur T. Fitzgerald, Holly A. Morris, Rachael Markarian and James Healy Jr. Distributor: Prime Video
It takes a real leap of faith to believe that one can resurrect a premise that’s been rendered ridiculous by one of the most successful lampoons in the history of movies and make it generate serious suspense again. Yet that’s what “On a Wing and a Prayer” attempts—reviving the old saw about the passenger forced to take over the controls of a plane when the captain is incapacitated, a plot that 1980’s “Airplane!” pretty much made impossible to resuscitate without eliciting guffaws.
Perhaps the makers believed the picture could overcome the hurdle because it’s based on a real incident from 2009, and is framed as a faith-based story with as much emphasis on the prayer as the wing in the title. As it happens, that doesn’t make it less clichéd, but more so, and rather troubling besides.
Dennis Quaid is the unprepared pilot, Doug White, a pharmacist in a small Louisiana town. He’s introduced as a hapless flight student trying to guide a Cessna to a proper landing as his loudmouth brother Jeff (Brett Rice) kibitzes from the back seat. After the instructor takes the controls and brings the plane down safely, Doug and White are off to a local BBQ contest where we meet the rest of Doug’s family, supportive wife Terri (Heather Graham) and teen daughters Maggie (Jessi Case) and Bailey (Abigail Rhyne). (The two girls are very unlike, Bailey a rambunctious tomboy and older Maggie a snooty type with her nose always in her smartphone. For some reason she’s also the only member of the family without a thick accent.)
They’re also a deeply religious family, as we learn when, after winning the contest, they decide to use their brisket to feed needy folk, and pray over the food before delivering it. Then Jeff goes back to his home in Florida.
The jovial mood of the Whites is soon shattered when Doug gets a call telling him that Jeff has suddenly died, and he, Terri and the girls travel to Florida for the funeral. Jeff’s death, along with those of his parents shortly before, leads Doug into a crisis of faith. Unable even to deliver a eulogy at the service, he collects the family for a quick trip back home on a charter plane. Unfortunately, only a short way into the flight the pilot, a nice fellow called Joe (Wilbur T. Fitzgerald), slumps over dead. (Befitting the cliché-ridden treatment, he grabs his left arm and grimaces before collapsing.)
Being a pleasant sort, Joe has allowed Doug to sit beside him in the cockpit, and he grabs the wheel; Terri soon joins him, taking the pilot’s seat and helping with the controls. They contact the tower at the airfield from which they departed for instructions, but it’s only after Dan Favio (Rocky Myers), a would-be air traffic controller too interested in women and alcohol, contacts Kari Sorenson (Jesse Metcalfe), a man familiar with the particular plane involved, that Doug will get the assistance he needs. And still there are serious issues: Favio is calling Kari from inside the control tower—a federal offense—and Kari is reluctant to get involved, since he’s still emotionally distraught from a previous crash he couldn’t prevent (a fact that’s distanced him from his girlfriend Ashley, played by Anna Enger Ritch). Moreover, even after a connection is established, phone reception will be interrupted; and just as circumstances seem to be improving, a storm comes up. Did we mention that Bailey suffers a potentially fatal allergic reaction during the flight, to which Maggie must respond by retrieving her medication from the luggage and injecting her with it?
All this would seem a guaranteed tension-raiser, but it isn’t. Quaid acts (and drawls) up a storm himself, sweating so profusely you might swear he’d just emerged from a swimming pool, but apart from Graham, the supporting cast is flat, often amateurish. It’s no wonder that Doug keeps screaming “I need help!” since he’s getting so little, either from his co-stars or director Scott McNamara, who tries desperately to generate suspense—via split screens, for example—without success. He’s hobbled by technical work that’s pretty ineffectual, despite the efforts of cinematographer Christian Sebaldt and editor Jeff W. Canavan (and a pounding score by Brandon Roberts).
A further impediment results from the misguided decision to cut periodically to an obnoxious little girl named Donna (Raina Grey), an aviation buff whose father, a pilot, is frequently absent but who follows by-the-minute information regarding flights on her laptop. She begins following the tribulations of the White plane closely, calling her buddy Buggy (Trayce Malachi) to join her and explaining each stage of the event to him—obviously a clumsy means of informing us of the particulars, since the makers apparently think we’re too dense to grasp what’s going on without a running commentary.
One thing that’s abundantly clear is that Doug’s miraculous success in landing the plane comes not just from the ground crew’s advice but from a true deus ex machina, which restores Doug’s faith even as it brings other benefits: renewed sisterly affection between Bailey and Maggie, Dan’s decision to lay off the bottle (and the womanizing), and a new emotional commitment between Kari and Ashley. No wonder the finale is accompanied by a resounding overlay of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah!” God certainly does work in mysterious ways, and all it takes in this case is Joe’s death to start things rolling.
Donna might be an overall irritant, but at least one of her comments sums up the movie pretty well. At a particularly discouraging moment in the White family flight, when everything looks bleak, she observes, “This is, like, so bad.”
Indeed it is.