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Friday, Jan. 21, 2000


Uh, tower, we have a problem

"Pushing Tin" is one of those films where you can ponder the title and print ads (John Cusack lying down on a runway in front of an approaching plane) for a week and still have no clue whatsoever as to what it's actually about.

Actually, it's not as oblique as it seems: "Pushing Tin" is air-traffic controller slang for keeping the planes moving, maximizing approaches and runway space to keep everybody on time and happy. This is no easy job, and one that's getting progressively more stressful as more and more airports are operating near capacity, their lanes choked with flights.

In "Pushing Tin," director Mike Newell focuses on the speedy, stressed-out guys at TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control), who direct all the air traffic landing at Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark airports. Newell scored big in his previous film -- 1997's "Donnie Brasco" -- by immersing himself deeply in the cultural minutiae of a N.Y.C. sub-culture (the Mafia). He attempts to repeat that feat here, but with mixed results.

With a cast that features such proven talents as John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett, "Pushing Tin" certainly looks promising. Cusack plays Nick Falzone, a driven alpha-male par excellence who wants to land the most planes, sleep the least hours, shoot the most baskets, score the most chicks . . . you get the idea. Everything's fine as long as he's the big man at TRACON, but into his life steps Russell Bell (Thornton), an aloof loner who's even better at pushing tin than Nick. Worse yet, he's got a younger, sexier wife.

Feeling his masculinity threatened, Nick puts the moves on Mary (Angelina Jolie) when Russell is out of town, which, needless to say, causes even more tension at work and at home, with his own wife Connie (Blanchett). Old Russell is pretty mellow about the affair, telling Nick only that he'll understand what it's like if it happens with Connie. This drives Nick nuts, as he begins to fear that Russell might score with his wife; what bothers him is not so much the prospect of Connie's betrayal, as the fact that he'll no longer have one up on Russell.

Cusack has the ultra-competitive, "my equipment is bigger than your equipment" type down to perfection. His portrayal of Nick is all id and bluster, and a lot of fun to watch (though one suspects many female viewers will wince with recognition of ex-boyfriends). Particularly humorous is his discomfort when he finds himself, 24 hours after seducing Mary, in the same Italian restaurant with his wife Connie, and who should turn up at the next table but Russell and Mary? Cusack's ability to channel a guilty conscience into outwardly expressed frustration is uncanny.

"Pushing Tin" is best when it focuses on the workplace, the tension thick as the controllers huddle down in front of their terminals, delivering hyperspeed directions to multiple planes in order to avoid a mid-air collision, and placing bets on who's going to crack from the stress. As the above synopsis makes clear, however, the film spends way too much time outside this rich milieu.

Newell -- like the intense alpha-male types in his film -- is good on the workplace stuff, while totally inept with the emotional side of things. This was already apparent in "Donnie Brasco": Workaholic cop Donnie's clashes with his neglected wife were the weakest, most unconvincing part of that film. The bad news is there's tons more of that sort of stuff here, particularly as Nick and Connie's marriage goes sour.

The big criticism of British film has always been that it looks like TV; Brit director Newell now has Hollywood-size budgets and stars to work with, but with this film at least, it still feels like TV. Newell actually started his career on TV, but this film's light, sitcom feel seems more the product of screenwriters Glen and Les Charles, who've worked on "Cheers" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." All the little vignettes in the film -- the snappy one-liners, the big workplace showdown, the romantic dinner over candlelight, the marital spat -- all reek of the trite, sound-bite quality that marks a TV drama around its fifth season or so.

Despite being a film on an unusual topic, "Pushing Tin" dishes out the cliches with a dull regularity. Russell and his wife are supposed to be "rebels," so they ride a Harley and dress like they walked out of a Guns N' Roses video. When the reason for Russell's calmer approach to life turns out to be because of his Native American roots, the script has him spout pseudo-ancient wisdom crap like "Thought is your enemy. You have to let go." Even Oliver Stone knows better than to mistake his Buddhism for his old Indian lore.

But the real cake-taker is the corny-beyond-belief ending where Nick calls an incoming flight, and pleads with his estranged wife over the cockpit P.A., telling Connie to have dinner with him, or else he'll put the plane in the 23rd slot for landing. As he sings to her into his headset, with all of TRACON looking on breathlessly, and the whole plane cabin enraptured as well, you can almost hear the collective "aaaawwww" emitted by the microcephalics they get to test-screen this stuff on. Any discriminating viewer, however, will groan with embarrassment at such a contrived moment, watching a decent director sink so low.

This is worth a check on video for Cusack's wired performance, but only after you've seen "Grosse Point Blank," thank you.

"Pushing Tin" (Japanese title: "Kuruchainaize") opens Jan. 22 at Yurakucho Subaru-za.

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