Delayed flights, luggage theft, long queues, nazi customs officials, obnoxious passengers, expensive coffee and second rate food – it’s absolutely criminal what happens at some airports.
According to the movies, however, all of this is just the collective tip of the iceberg when it comes to the range of really serious illegal activities that take place in and around a number of these international destinations. Mark Fraser looks at 10 cinematic moments when the aviation industry comes in direct contact with society’s seething underbelly.
10. Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969)
This seminal counter culture work opens with one of the silliest drug deals ever committed to celluloid as free-spirited bikers Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) sell a bunch of cocaine to a connection (Phil Spector) at what seems to be the end of one of Los Angeles International Airport’s busiest runways. They then use the proceeds to fund their soul searching journey across the southern US. Why they would choose such a high profile and awkward location to off-load their gear is anyone’s guess. Aside from the fact the noise from the low flying planes overhead is unpleasantly deafening (a distraction one probably doesn’t need while conducting a major drug deal), the site does not allow too many avenues of escape if anything goes wrong.
9. Magnum Force (Ted Post, 1973)
To show that San Francisco detective Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) has stayed on top of his game since 1971’s Dirty Harry, he acts as a pilot to thwart a hijacking at the Metropolitan Oakland International Airport. Needless to say he succeeds in both killing the bad guys and pulling off another laconic Eastwoodesque moment.
8. GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
Although it all happens off-screen, the Lufthansa heist at John F. Kennedy International Airport in December 1978 is a pivotal moment in what is arguably the greatest Hollywood gangster film ever made. Aside from the fact it is (up until that point in time) the largest cash robbery in American history, it also marks the point in the story when paranoid caper mastermind Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) starts wiping out his not-so-discrete crew for fear of being caught. Additionally, this airport crime underpins one of the film’s great ironies – that an accomplished criminal like Conway is unable to get made in the world’s most influential criminal organisation (the Cosa Nostra) because he’s part Irish. Now there’s a statement about snobbery and racial bigotry!
7. Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1978)
Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) fails to pull the wool over the eyes of the Turkish police when he gets nabbed just before boarding a plane at Istanbul’s airport with a large stash of hashish taped to his body. In real life, Hayes pretty much kept his head while serving almost five years of his sometimes brutal prison sentence before conducting a reasonably uneventful escape from a low security “correctional facility”. In the script by Oliver Stone, however, he has a serious meltdown, smashes up the joint, bites off the tongue of an informer (Pado Bonacelli) in a crazed frenzy before being committed to a prison wing for the criminally insane. Later, he kills the sodomy-seeking warden (Paul L Smith) before walking out of prison disguised as a guard. If anything, this movie should appear on another list: Top 10 Bastardisations of a True Story by a Hollywood Scriptwriter.
6. Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)
When bank robber Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) momentarily postpones his escape plan by killing an ex-gang member (Kevin Gage) in a guarded Los Angeles hotel, he is seen leaving, and then pursued, by police lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). The ensuing chase eventually ends in one of LA airport’s freight areas, where the cop manages to outsmart the honourable crook with the assistance of the runway’s lights. Unlike the opening moments of Easy Rider, the presence of deafening, low flying passenger planes in this scene makes dramatic sense.
5. The Assassination of Richard Nixon (Neils Mueller, 2004)
As Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) slips further into despair while his life disintegrates around him, he decides it would be a good idea to kill the 37th US President by hijacking a commercial airliner and crashing it into the White House. The problem is when he finally does force his way onto a plane at the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the futility of the plan fully dawns on him and he ends up shooting both the pilot (JC MacKenzie) and co-pilot (Tim Halpin) before the authorities take him out. Penn has rarely been better, while no other airport crime scene on this list involves such a hopelessly self-tormenting and psychologically tortured perpetrator.
4. (TIE) Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968)
With Bullitt, British-born director Peter Yates not only pioneered the car chase in US cinema, but he also took the Hollywood airport crime scene to a new level in a film that ended up epitomising the late 1960s/early 1970s American urban cop movie. As with Heat, the aerodrome action involves a foot chase that concludes with a shootout (this time in the San Francisco International Airport passenger terminal) as police lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) tries to capture escaped star witness Johnny Ross (Pat Renella), who is fleeing both the law and the Chicago mob. Intelligently directed and well-paced, this scene’s effectiveness is greatly enhanced by Yates’ sparse use of music (by Lalo Schifrin) and his total eschewing of any fancy gimmicks.
4. (TIE) Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)
James Bond (Daniel Craig) has his hands full when he has to stop Carlos (Claudio Santamaria) from crashing a booby-trapped fuel truck into a commercial airliner at Miami International Airport. This crime scene has a bit of everything when it comes to murder, mayhem, edge-of-your-seat stunt work, machismo and explosions. If anything, it’s the antithesis of the airport foot chase in Bullitt.
3. 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)
A global plague that wipes out most of humanity is first let loose at Philadelphia’s international airport after time traveller James Cole (Bruce Willis) and psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) fail to stop Dr Peters (David Morse) from unleashing the laboratory-created virus in a crowded passenger terminal. This crime against greater humankind, however, gets briefly put to one side as Cole is melodramatically shot dead by the police after he tries to keep the loony lab rat from boarding his flight with the help of a blunderbuss given to him just moments earlier by another agent from the future (Jon Seda).
2. The Rookie (Clint Eastwood, 1990)
While this nonsense remains one of the low points (if not the nadir) of Eastwood’s directorial career, at least the unbelievably over-the-top climatic shoot out at the San Jose International Airport between two detectives (Eastwood and Charlie Sheen) and a couple of car thieves (Raul Julia and Sonia Braga) provides a few laughs. Unfortunately the overall impact of this scene– which comes just after one of Julia’s henchmen (Xander Berkeley) gets shot and crashes a private jet into a commercial airliner – is somewhat blunted by an earlier moment in the film when Clint is raped (by Braga) while tied to a chair. Now there’s a truly hard act for any airport crime to follow.
1. Die Hard II: Die Harder (Renny Harlin, 1990)
Another Christmas Eve descends into chaos for poor old John McClane (Bruce Willis) when he comes across a bunch of mercenaries intent on rescuing the South American-looking drug czar General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero) from the hands of the US authorities at Dulles International Airport in Washington DC. Meanwhile, his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) is on board one of the many incoming flights that are being forced by the terrorists to stay in the air and burn up their fuel as the cat and mouse battle rages below. All sorts of crimes occur at this scene, ranging from murder, the illegal use of firearms and computer hacking to professional negligence, piss-poor wisecracks and the mass destruction of airline property.