Sustaining the "Airport" series must be a heavy creative burden, forcing producer Jennings Lang, the keeper of the sequels to Ross Hunter's original production of "Airport", into a never-ending quest for fresh gimmicks, perils and irrestible absurdities.
The latest -- and possibly greatest -- installment, "The Concorde -- Airport '79" (what a title!), is a treasure of a Good Bad Movie, two hours of busy, batty, action-packed, absent-minded melodramatic escapades. In "Airport '77" Lang stooper to life a gag from the wonderful disaster film parody, "The Bug Bus." Going the whole hog, "Airport '79" is nearly as funny as "The Big Bus," albeit unwittingly. If you see only one absurd movie this year, let it be "The Concorde -- Airport '79."
The awesomely photogenic Concorde confers a certain class on the basically redundant disaster act. The formal beauty of the plane is an attraction in itself, and it ranscends the cliffhanging nonsense that the fictional passengers and crew are mercilessly subjected to.
An American company has purchased a Concorde which arrives at Dulles for a goodwill Washington-to-Paris-to-Moscow cruise. Upon landing at Dulles, the lightning reflexes of Capt. Paul Metrand (Alan Delon) save the plane from an ignominious, improbable collision with a party of balloonists who've gone aloft to display a "Stop the Concorde" banner. The plane's troubles are only beginning.
For quite a while the exposition seems to be sex-obsessed. Metrand and stewardess Isabelle (Sylvia Kristel, of "Emmanuelle" fame) are old flames ready to flare up again. Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely), the queen of Washington TV anchorwomen, is expecting a child by her lover Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner), the president of a powerful aerospace and weapons company and respectably married family man. Noble, independent, undemanding Maggie plans to raise the child alone. Her colleague, sports commentator Bob Palmer (John Davidson), is having an affair with Alicia Rogov (Andrea Marcovici), a visiting Soviet gymnast, under the nose of her coach, played by Mercedes McCambridge.
Maggie, Bob, Alicia and the coach have reservations on the Concorde. Other highlights on the passenger list include Avery Schreiber as an adorable Russian weightlifter with a darling deaf child; Cicely Tyson as a distraught mother transporting a live heart to Paris (in a box clearly marked "HUMAN HEART"), where her stricken child awaits a transplant operation; Eddie Albert as the proud president of the airline; Monica Lewis (Mrs. Jennings Lang) as a jazz vocalist accompanied by Jimmie Walker, a pot-happy jazz musician; and Martha Ray, divinely funny despite the sustained indignity of playing a queasy matron who spends all her time going to the bathroom.
On the flight deck Metrand, Isabelle and navigator Peter O'Neill (David Warner) welcome a new boy, George Kennedy as that old standby Joe Patroni. Beginning as a salty airplane mechanic in "Airport," Patroni became an airlines executive in the "Airports" '75 and '77. Now he's been either promoted or demoted to pilot, and shares the life-or-death flying duties with Metrand.
The key passenger is Maggie, who has learned that her weapons-merchant lover has made illegal arms sales to foreign governments.
Maggie calls him from the plane and threatens to break the story unless he can explain things to her satisfactory.
Fearing that he can't, the guilty Harrison sets in motion a chain of sabotage attempts that keep the pilots hopping, the passengers tumbling (new owner Albert falls through the floor into the wild blue at one hilarious juncture) and the Concorde flying: upside-down, backwards, sideways and every which way, more or less nonstop toward Paris.
The Chinese fire drill emergencies are hard to beat for rollicking entertainment. For example, Patroni, trying to shoot a flare out the window to distract an onrushing ballistic missile, shoots a hole through the flight deck instead. It seems just the sort of accident that would happen if you were trying to get your Concorde out of the way of an onrushing ballistic missile.
On the other hand, Land should be ashamed of himself for dropping Cicely Tyson and her poor son after the plane hobbles into Paris. Having introduced the prospect of that critical transplant, Lang is obligated to follow through and depict a little of the operation. As it is, he invites the suspicion that he feels safe in shortchanging the black characters.
Where does the "Airport" series go from this lofty peak? In my humble opinion Lang should Think Interplanetary. As far as current passenger planes are concerned, the Concorde is the tops. But the first interplanetary passenger ship would be something else. How about a "Spaceport '99," with maybe rival passenger transports? There the series could someday intersect with the courses now being set by adventure movies like "Star Wars" and "Moonraker."