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The "Force" is strong in this one

Blast San Francisco Bureau

When I first saw the trailers for "Air Force One," I laughed. No one, I thought, could breach security on the presidential jetliner. And the president, Clinton or fictional, could not single-handedly take on a group of terrorist hijackers. No. Freakin'. Way.

"Air Force One" exceeds expectations as a butt-clinching suspense action film, not simply because of the rattling explosions and the flurry of bullets that pepper the scenes. Surprisingly, "AF1" makes an across-the-board derivative storyline into something far more intense than its parts and ultimately original as a whole. It's one hella fine film.

The film is directed by Wolfgang Peterson, who has helmed two other action-packed pieces, the German subtitled "Das Boot" and the Clint Eastwood vehicle "In the Line of Fire." In "Fire," the story centers around a Secret Service agent who must protect the president from a would-be assassin.

This time, in "AF1," the president -- a former war hero-turned-commander-in-chief played by Harrison Ford -- is forced to take on the enemy himself, using little more than an automatic firearm and his quick wits.

The enemy here: Gary Oldman, who plays the leader of a half-dozen Commie jet-jackers who take over the presidential plane and demand the release of an imprisoned comrade.

Immediately, we know we've seen this set-up a billion times before: It's "Die Hard" in a plane. But there's even more story stealing: "AF1" co-opts plot from other sieged aircraft flicks like "Con Air," "Executive Decision" and "Passenger 57." Make the bad guys a rag-tag group of Pinkos, and suddenly you have a phony Cold War backdrop. Next, add the captain of the Millennium Falcon but strip him of the cockiness. Now let him run loose to throw a wrench in the bad guys' master plan. Whaddya got? A volatile cinematic cocktail of jet-fueled action and suspense -- and this time President Han Solo's got his hand on the trigger.

Ford is one of my favorite actors and if I have one complaint about him, it's that his past roles display a lack of broad roles -- essentially he's been Solo or his other film franchise alter-ego, Indiana Jones. He's smart and physical, although he often stumbles.

As President James Marshall he's more down to earth and human than usual (with the exception of his roles in "Sabrina" and "Regarding Henry"). Early on, we see him as Mr. Leader of the Free World, a firm political leader with a firm message for terrorists worldwide: Mess with us and YOU'RE whacked. But also we see him catching a college football game while downing a beer from the bottle -- he's a regular Joe, a family man with a wife and a kid he loves. Later, when Oldman's Ivan Korshunov points a gun to his daughter's head, Marshall desperately gives in to the terrorists' demands as tears roll down his face. Here we see a man caught between being a president and being a husband and father.

Helping Ford keep the action up is a fine supporting cast. Oldman, who did bad-guy duty earlier this year as a flamboyantly psychotic arms dealer in "The Fifth Element," is more restrained this time and far more effective as a terrorist who literally holds the president hostage at gunpoint. A fine performance by Glenn Close has her play it cool as the vice president who has to coordinate the save-the-Prez effort from the White House.

Peterson's fine direction is more in line with classical action films -- there's less of the hyper intensity that mark movies like "Con Air" and "The Rock." Setting the film aboard an airborne jet adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere. "In the Line of Fire" was a great action flick, but "AF1" kicks its ass.

Hail to the chief.