If there is one subgenre that has sadly been neglected in the 21st century, it’s that of the airplane thriller, where the action unfurls in a built-in claustrophobic setting 40,000 in the air, escape all but impossible. The ‘90s saw a boon in this particular corner of entertainment, producing everything from Executive Decision to Air Force One to Con Air — all bangers, mind you. Sure, we got Red Eye and Flightplan in the early aughts, but where is this generation’s Passenger 57? For that matter, audiences would even take schlock like Turbulence at this point, and don’t even try to argue that last year’s Plane was a sufficient replacement, considering 80% of the action didn’t even take place on the titular craft.
Netflix’s new action-comedy Lift suffers from a similar problem in that we don’t get to the damn plane until the halfway point, which doesn’t leave nearly enough time to satiate those thirsty for miles-high thrills. Yet thanks to the workmanlike efforts of director F. Gary Gray — a filmmaker who has a minimum of two Lifetime Pass efforts on his CV; real ones know which — Lift is far more entertaining and compelling than it has any right to be, especially when you consider the beyond hackneyed framework, plotting, and characterization on display. Kevin Hart stars as Cyrus Whitaker, a world-famous art thief who, as the film opens, is executing the elaborate heist of an NFT — you read right — with his diverse team of cohorts, all of whom are introduced with freeze frames and onscreen text, obviously. There’s a hacker (Kim Yun-jee), a pilot (Úrsula Corberó), an engineer (Viveik Kalra), some comedic relief, and Vincent D’Onofrio (who is given shit all to do, but it is Vincent D’Onofrio). The crew is being pursued by rules-obsessed Interpol agent Abby Gladwell (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who has a romantic history with Cyrus after the two spent five days together in Paris and either fell in love, raw-dogged nonstop, or both, the details remaining sketchy. Cutting to the chase: Cyrus’ team is essentially caught red-handed, and the only way to gain immunity is to help Interpol steal $500 million in gold bars belonging to cyberterrorist Lars Jorgenson (Jean Reno). This naturally must be accomplished during the transport of the fortune by plane, and so our team of loveably brash knuckleheads — aided by Gladwell — set about formulating a plan for the impossible, leaving viewers to wonder why there is so much empty flirting between Cyrus and Abby and not more sweet, sweet plane action.
Truth be told, Lift is surprisingly never a painful watch, despite all suggestion that it should be, even as the core team lacks anything resembling chemistry — that goes double for Hart and Mbatha-Raw — and its attempts at comedy come across as more forced than organic. And then there’s the sin of stripping Billy Magnussen of his inherent comedic sensibility, confirming something is amiss. Hart weirdly plays the entire role straight, as if he’s auditioning to become the next Wesley Snipes, and it drains him of any sort of charm in the process. Still, odd choices abound throughout Lift, and the shake-awake effect they have on viewers, along with Gray’s assured hand, make the proceedings both entirely watchable and borderline engaging, especially once the action hits the tarmac. Unfortunately, the entire enterprise is far too neutered, landing as a PG-13, family-friendly trifle when what is needed to truly sell the material is the bugfuck viciousness of Gray’s 2009 magnum opus Law Abiding Citizen. On the other hand, and thankfully, Lift never reaches the lows of something like Men in Black: International, a stain on a filmography if ever there was one, the bar it establishes buried somewhere in Earth’s core. If you completely turn off your brain and squint really hard, Lift might just take you back to the halcyon days of genre yore, when we took our shot-on-film, “B-grade” fare for granted. It’s present here in spurts, and occasionally lifts Lift above the usual doldrums of January fare, which will be plenty enough for a certain kind of viewer.
DIRECTOR: F. Gary Gray; CAST: Kevin Hart, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Billy Magnussen, Úrsula Corberó, Jean Reno; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; IN THEATERS/STREAMING: January 12; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 44 min.