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Guilty Pleasures: “Terminal Velocity”

February 13, 2014

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Friends, Romans, Cinephiles, lend me your ears (figuratively, of course; this is a blog). I watched Terminal Velocity with naught but the intention to roundly eviscerate it and score some cheap laughs at Charlie Sheen’s expense. This is, after all, an all-but-forgotten 1994 thriller that was all-but-forgotten by…well, a month later in 1994. It would be easy to say that this movie went splat like one of the hapless skydivers that the plot centers around, but that would imply the movie had some weight. In fact, this movie more blew away in the wind like one of those skydivers—if they were full of helium (shit, that started so good). Alas, gentle reader, I come here today not to bury Terminal Velocity, but to praise it, for this movie is utterly brainless, totally improbable, and a lot of fun.

So, Terminal Velocity is basically a spiritual successor to the Z-grade Coleman Francis flick The Skydivers, in that both films were made, I can only assume, because one producer said, “I have some money!” and another said, “I have access to some professional skydivers!” and a screenwriter said, “I can make a movie around those things!” And it was done.

Charlie Sheen on any given Tuesday.

Charlie Sheen on any given Tuesday.

The movie begins with Nastassja Kinski’s woman-of-mystery Chris Morrow on a stakeout in the desert, where she watches a mysterious 747 land. She hurries back to her apartment were she makes some panicked phone calls and is then roughed up by a sinister Christopher MacDonald (sporting a very ‘90s frosted ‘do). She is clearly scared.

Enter professional skydiver Ditch Brodie, who Chris approaches for skydiving lessons. He takes her up for her first jump (after much, much, much painful Sheen-flirting—it’s supposed to be annoying, but still, it’s like watching a monkey fuck a football—no fun for us and exasperating for the monkey). Ditch turns away for a moment, and when he turns back, Chris is gone—apparently having fallen out of the plane.

I...I think this Charlie's version of foreplay.

I can only assume this is Charlie’s version of foreplay.

Ditch jumps after her, and here we have the first example of why this movie is so fun: the aerial sequences are boss as hell. In the pre-CGI days, it was mostly done with actual stuntmen and it looks and feels exhilarating in a way that no movie released this year can match.

Okay, so Ditch loses her, and she goes splat. Sucks, right? What a waste of a Nastassja Kinski. She didn’t even get naked (spoiler: she never does) or turn into a panther (she never does that, either). And Ditch is understandably traumatized. He also can’t figure out why she fell out of the plane.

"Curse you, Red Baron!"

“Curse you, Red Baron!”

A little amateur sleuthing on his part lands him smack-dab in the middle of a deadly plot involving a very-much-alive Chris, some former KGB goons, that mysterious 747, and a lot of skydiving. Seems Chris, frosty-headed MacDonald, and a bunch of other people are laid-off KGB agents who stumbled into a scheme that fast spiraled out of control, and now some of them are willing to kill to see it through.

"Nah, you'd never see me doing TV..."

“Nah, you’d never see me doing TV…”

Of course, with one or two exceptions, every action sequence involves skydiving, but that doesn’t count as a knock, since the sequences are just so good, with each one upping the ante, until it climaxes with Ditch clinging to a car, plummeting from a cargo plane, trying to free Chris from the trunk. And it gets crazier from there. But we also have…

* James Gandolfini! Yay! We get young(ish) Gandolfini, who, predictably, steals every scene he’s in.

*Wait, these people were laid off from the KGB? Apparently, Hollywood hadn’t learned about the FSB yet.

* Ditch’s plan to seduce Chris ends with, “And be home in time for Leno.” Really? You’re going rush sex with Nastassja Kinski in order to watch late-night TV? And Leno, at that? Okay, younger readers: even in 1994, no one liked Leno that much.

* The movie makes good use of weird locations and people in the desert outside Tucson, including an eccentric gearhead who builds a rocket-sled. It’s the kind of local weirdness that makes even a small movie distinctive.

"Look, Cat People has layers most people judt don't get."

“Look, Cat People has layers most people just don’t get.”

* Some of the dialogue is pretty horrible: “This woman is to bullshit what Stonehenge is to rocks.” Uh…it’s in a circle? It was in Spinal Tap? I’m not tracking.

* There are a lot of ‘90s time capsules here: the fact Ditch seems to know nothing about foreign countries, Leno, people constantly need to use payphones, one dude needs a calling card to call long-distance, etc.

* More awesomeness can be summed up in two words: wind farm.

* This movie holds the seeds of Charlie Sheen’s meltdown almost 20 years later, but his performance here, for the most part, is pretty likable and he even gets in some pretty funny physical comedy.

* Ditch’s backstory includes, improbably enough, the fact he was a teenage gymnast who qualified for the 1980 Olympics. It’s an odd touch that actually gets a callback in the end.

* More bad dialogue: “KGB? Isn’t it the KG used to B?” (sigh) Why don’t you let other people talk, Charlie.

So, yeah, Terminal Velocity. It’s got a big 14% on Rotten Tomatoes. Check it out.

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