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Flight - Denzel Washington's high-flying pilot crashes down to earth

(Image credit: Robert Zuckerman)

Denzel Washington’s pilot Whip Whitaker likes to fly high - just not in the manner sanctioned by the airline industry.

The protagonist of Robert Zemickis’s slick, superior Hollywood melodrama Flight, Whip makes his first appearance waking from a booze and coke bender next to a naked, equally wasted air stewardess (Nadine Velazquez). Yet one bracing snort of cocaine later and he’s smartly dressed, briskly striding and ready to assume his duties as captain on a routine 9am flight from Orlando to Atlanta.

And he’s such a hotshot pilot that when the plane develops a catastrophic mechanical failure in midair he manages to crash-land the aircraft in a field, having first flown upside down to prevent it plummeting to earth, a brilliant - if thoroughly implausible - manoeuvre that gets him hailed as a hero.

Denzel Washington is Whip Whitaker in FLIGHT

(Image credit: Robert Zuckerman)

You’d think the crash - and the media and legal reverberations that follow - would sober Whip up, but he’s so far gone in addiction and denial that he can’t pull himself out of his self-inflicted tailspin.

Stripped to its essentials, Flight is a very conventional film - you can easily imagine a dozen made-for-TV movies following a similar flight path of downfall and redemption - but the on-board service provided by Zemeckis and crew is first-class.

Making his return to live-action films after a trio of motion-capture ventures, including The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, Zemeckis turns the flight itself into a terrifying white-knuckle ride; and, played to the hilt by Washington, Whip’s subsequent personal descent is almost as scary. The Oscar-nominated Washington is, of course, superb, and he gets excellent support from co-stars Kelly Reilly as Whip’s heroin-addict companion, Don Cheadle as his savvy lawyer , Bruce Greenwood as his union rep and John Goodman as his rambunctious drug-dealer friend.

In cinemas from Friday 1st February.