Sony // 1997 // 125 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // March 19th, 2002
Harrison Ford is the President of the United States...for 125 minutes anyway.
What a time for a new version of Air Force One to come out; this film has a whole new feel in the aftermath of September 11th, and echoes the events taking place today with our war on terrorism. Of course, it only echoes those events, since George W. Bush wasn't hijacked about his plane and forced to duke it out. I'd probably pay to see G.W. trading punches on Air Force One with bin Laden (a new special on Fox!), but in the meantime we have this perennial favorite among action films to keep us going. In addition to the already fine DVD release from 1998, videophiles now have the option of the Superbit version, which ditches the commentary, foreign language tracks, other features, and the pan & scan version (huzzah!) in favor of a new, less compressed widescreen version, along with a DTS soundtrack. Is it everything you could hope for? Well, no. But I'm pretty happy with the disc anyway.
Harrison Ford plays President James Marshall, a Medal of Honor winning veteran with all the qualities we dream of in a President: He smart, courageous, and puts what is right above scoring political points, as he does when he announces that no longer will America stand by when they know something is morally right to be done. This surprising statement (surprising at the time, anyway) comes in light of the recent capture of General Radek (Jurgen Prochnow), a terrorist who threatened the world with nuclear weapons in a former Soviet Republic. Marshall tells the terrorists "It's your turn to be afraid."
The terrorists have another idea, however. Returning home from Russia the presidential aircraft is hijacked by a team of Radek loyalists, and the brave and resourceful President has to take them on single-handedly.
A dry recital of the plotline does little justice to the film, as it sounds so contrived, but in reality, it's a fast paced thriller with plenty of twists and turns. Make no mistake, this is simply an action film meant for summertime fun and excitement. It's amusing in a way to see that the film could get more credit for its prescience now than it did even during a successful theatrical run. Still, it's been a favorite of mine from the genre for a long time, and action fans have either already seen it or need to take the time to check it out now.
Harrison Ford rarely misses a step, and provides a believable President amidst very unbelievable events. I admit it takes a certain suspension of disbelief to buy into the story, but the pace and flow of the film eases that burden. Gary Oldman, who was so eerily menacing as the villain in The Professional, takes an entirely different tack but remains an excellent foil for Ford. A good villain is indispensable to a good action flick, and he comes through with flying colors. The rest of the ensemble cast often have a moment to shine, such as Dean Stockwell as the forceful Defense Secretary or Donna Bullock afraid for her life. The latter is a riveting scene.
I've owned the 1998 release for a long time and I've always been pretty happy with it. A nice anamorphic transfer, a demo quality Dolby Digital 5.1 track, and a director's commentary along with the wasted pan and scan version on the other side of the single layered, dual sided disc. The Superbit version uses a dual layered disc just for the widescreen version of the movie, and the difference in compression rates show, though as usual those with larger displays will see more benefit. For my 32" monitor the differences are subtle, mostly somewhat less video noise and an improved level of detail. This is a fine looking disc, with a smooth look and bold, well saturated colors. There is one troubling aspect of the picture quality, and that is the presence of edge enhancement -- a ringing halo effect that is easily seen on large displays. In this respect, the Superbit version seems about the same as the earlier release. [Editor's Note: According to Marshall Starkman, the Superbit project manager in a Widescreen Review interview, the Air Force One Superbit was sourced from the same master as the original DVD.]
The Superbit version acquits itself with aplomb in the sound department. The earlier Dolby Digital 5.1 track was one of my demo discs, with its deep bass, aggressive mix, and all the directional effects you can stand. This Dolby Digital track sounds identical to the old one, but in this case the rule of "if it isn't broke don't fix it" applies. Now added is a half bitrate DTS track, which does manage to subtly improve on the Dolby Digital. It's almost a broken record that a DTS track will be slightly better, but it remains true in this case. Imaging is slightly improved here, with a bit tighter bass. I still have a nit to pick here, but I'll do it below.
Few events in the DVD world have caused so much polarization amongst the DVD Verdict staff as Superbit. First, there is the double dipping issue. The studios seem determined to get us to buy multiple copies of the same film, even from within the same format. I think most DVD enthusiasts will agree that it is better to get a disc right the first time, eliminating the need for a "better picture" version. There have been discs that look every bit as good as Superbit, but are just plain old discs with extra content. Of course, the running time of the film has as much to do with compression rates and relative quality as anything the technicians do in the control room. A shorter film can get a bigger bitrate, and still have room for extras over a long running film without them. Many critics have asked Columbia to just make two-disc sets so they can have the best picture and extra content, and it appears they have listened. Superbit Deluxe is supposed to be in the pipeline, giving us exactly what we asked for. I just wonder how many of these titles will be triple dipped as a result, but in this case I suppose we can't complain.
I still have an issue with Superbit, even Superbit Deluxe, however. Even on the two disc sets, a commentary track would likely not be included, even ones already done and available. This would fit into their philosophy of saving every bit for the picture and sound, though I did notice they have not one but two animated scenes before the plain menus come up. I don't know how much space a commentary track takes, but I do know that in the military they teach that 300Hz-3000Hz is the frequency range at which a human voice is intelligible, and that is what their communication gear reproduces. It doesn't take a super soundtrack to just play a human voice talking. So I have to ask if a narrow frequency commentary track really takes up enough room to mess up a disc. I seriously doubt it. Some have no interest in commentaries, and they will be happy with the Superbit version of Air Force One. Others will be less enthusiastic.
All right, here is my mini-rant about half bitrate DTS. Yes, I realize that even the bitrate used on this Superbit DVD is superior to the Dolby Digital, but the differences are slight. A full bitrate DTS track would more surely prove Columbia's desire to provide the best picture and sound. I have to wonder if either choosing Dolby Digital alone or a full bitrate DTS would not be a better alternative.
My recommendations depend upon who you are and your circumstances. If you have a smaller display (36" or less) and you like commentary tracks you'd likely be happier with the original release. Others might want to rent the original, listen to the commentary once, and buy the Superbit. Videophiles will almost certainly prefer this version. There is noticeable improvement in the picture and sound in this release, which is all important to those striving for the perfect picture on large displays. For those who already own the original the choice is tougher, but again the size of your display will likely be your guidepost. In either case, this movie comes with my recommendation for fans of action thrillers.
I find this disc free to go into as many homes as wish to buy it, and the film has already been found not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R