Isabelle: “You pilots are such…..men.”
Patroni: “Well, they don’t call it a cockpit for nothing.”
It’s no kind of life being Joe Patroni (George Kennedy, who the fuck else?), that thick-as-a-brick loveable lug; the era’s hopelessly hapless Robert Todd Lincoln of aviation. In 1970, he was a cigar-chomping, scenery-chewing mechanic who literally willed a 747 out of harm’s way through sheer animal magnetism and a dash of hip-thrusting machismo, though it was but the first of four pre-ordained connections to air disaster. In 1975, he stood atop a fire truck with teeth bared and once again, was within earshot as a jumbo jet careened out of control, with only a cross-eyed nitwit between it and flaming Armageddon. Needless to say, it took Charlton Heston in a turtleneck to bring a bit of sanity to the proceedings. Thank god he had the humility to insist that he alone could jump from one plane to another in mid-flight.
Then, in 1977, Joe was there once again as Jack Lemmon crashed Jimmy Stewart’s big bird into the Bermuda Triangle and lived to tell the tale. Given these three near-misses, someone, somewhere should have thought twice about making Patroni an actual pilot, but there he was, the calendar now turned to 1979, sitting in the captain’s seat for the Concorde’s celebrated journey across the ocean. In his time away, he had lost his wife to a car accident (remember, she was aboard the doomed jet in Airport 1975, where the only option to a horrible death was marriage to George Kennedy), and was on the prowl for fresh meat. It was only a matter of time before he’d put hundreds of passengers through sheer hell once again, though few expected Robert Wagner to be behind the wicked scheme.
In many ways, Concorde: Airport ’79 has always been the bastard child of the decade’s disaster series, but upon further review, it just might be its most watchable. Who cares that it was well past midnight and I had already seen the damn thing a dozen times; I had to watch it again from start to finish, even if I knew no plane with John Davidson (as Robert Palmer!) aboard would ever fail to land safely. And who speaks of Mr. Davidson these days? My god, was there a more handsome visage in all of America? And who but good ol’ John could maintain the world’s most perfect hairdo while upside down at Mach 2? I’m not even sure a strand was out of place after spending a good two minutes underwater in a hot tub. But he’s a mere side note, a distraction from the real matter at hand: can Patroni beat the odds and land a doomed airliner yet again? Clearly, it’s his most challenging adventure yet. To say nothing of ours.
It seems Bob Wagner is a psychopathic arms dealer, and his girlfriend has discovered his nasty habits. She just happens to be a reporter, so she threatens to blow his cover. She also has the incriminating documents in her hot little hands, though she’s going to wait until the Concorde lands in Moscow before stunning the world and ruining Bob’s life. Naturally, rather than a clean and simple hit on some lonely street corner, Bob plans to bring down the jet using errant missiles and, failing that, a rogue fighter plane. He’s not taking any chances, this one. Wagner plays the heavy with lip-smacking relish, anticipating his real-life murder of Natalie Wood a few years later. There, though, he got wise. Instead of elaborate plots and late-night payoffs, he simply conked a drunk woman on the head and tossed her in the drink. It helped that she couldn’t swim a lick. To this day, he’s alive and well, free to bilk the blue hairs with the Senior Lending Network.
Only Bob’s murderous plans go awry, and Patroni dips and dives his way to a relatively smooth landing in
Paris. Not only did he evade the missiles, he used the oldest trick in the book to fend off the mad fighter – yes, he opened the cockpit window at the speed of motherfucking sound, and shot a flare gun to lead the deadly heat-seeking weapons astray. But only after the Concorde had recovered from an uncontrolled dive at well over 800 miles per hour. But wouldn’t you know it, the plane still faced danger at Charles de Gaulle, as the brakes failed for no apparent reason. Safety nets were installed on the runway, but all were broken through except the last, best hope that was but yards from, in Patroni’s words, “buying the farm.”
Okay, so the Concorde, the world’s most famous plane, has just been attacked on two fronts, with air traffic control aware of the whole stinking thing. Several terrorist groups claim responsibility, and for all anyone knows, the perpetrators have more trouble in mind. What’s the plan? Why, nothing short of leaving the plane unguarded on the tarmac so that an employee of Wagner’s can dress up like a mechanic, climb aboard, and rig the cargo hatch to pop open at high altitude, ripping the plane apart and of course, killing the reporter/girlfriend. Yes, I know Wagner and this woman meet in Paris where he could have poisoned her drink, and yes, she’s all alone at one point, making her an easy target for an out of control taxi or something. No, it’s best to blow up the fucking plane, taking the evidence, Patroni, Charo, a donor heart, and Jimmie Walker with her. But first, make sure the conspirator is a sweaty, panicky sort; the kind of guy who will tape the cash to his body, drop it all over the airport, and lead investigators on a wild chase that culminates in the assassin nearly getting hit by the Concorde.
Before that fatal flight from Paris to
Moscow, Patroni honors the memory of his dead wife by fucking Bibi Andersson. No, I don’t care that she was in Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. She’s far better as a Parisian whore who seduces poor Patroni in a café and resurrects his manhood by a roaring fire. Thankfully, we only see Kennedy’s bare shoulder. And maybe some chest hair. Patroni even manages a second helping inside of three minutes. It’s exactly what the widower needed before piloting the world’s fastest commercial airliner. Sure, he likely didn’t think that in the span of 24 hours, he’d have to spin like a corkscrew to evade enemy fire and keep Eddie Albert from slipping through a gaping hole in the fuselage, all in the same plane, but that why he’s Patroni. Perhaps he alone is why we were spared Airport ’83 or some such nonsense. I mean, sooner or later people are going to stop buying tickets if they see that man at the helm of anything more powerful than a golf cart. Still, before we curse his rotten luck, remember that he’s never lost a plane. At least not while he’s still in it.
So yes, the Concorde is destroyed this time out, but who could blame Patroni? He did his best to land the thing on a goddamn ski slope in the
Alps, which just might be the genre’s most impressive feat. Most realistic, at any rate. But the plane skidded too hard into a snow drift, so naturally, it exploded like an inferno. Luckily, everyone had exited the aircraft, including our plucky reporter and her briefcase. Fortunately, her survival is captured live for the television audience, which means Mr. Wagner sees the whole thing while on his way back to D.C. Rather than plot her murder yet again, he accepts the inevitable and commits suicide on board his private jet. Or so we think. We don’t actually see the bullet enter Bob’s head, and when the gun fires, it’s inexplicably held a good three feet away. Jesus, Bob’s not even sharing the frame with his own firearm! Maybe he doesn’t really want to die and is banking on an errant shot. Pity anyone who assumes that a cargo door flying wide open at 60,000 feet will bring down a plane. At best, you’ll jostle Martha Raye in the lavoratory.
So how else to end the movie than with a fiery Concorde one minute, and a gloriously intact Concorde flying into the sunset the next? And though Kennedy was finished turning million dollar machines into burnt husks, he would still charm us with characters only he could instill with some semblance of humanity: Father O’Malley, Tick Rand, Cotton, Big Buck Brayton, Rope Calder, Bones Duvalier, Brick Bazooka, and Dexter Brisbane. But he’ll always be Joe Patroni to me; the only man alive or dead who, within the span of a few years, went from greasy mechanic to full-blown Captain, all without pausing to change his shirt.