"I'm tired of pretending I'm not a total bitchin' rockstar from Mars, and people can't figure me out; they can't process me. I don't expect them to. You can't process me with a normal brain."-- Charlie Sheen
Before he was a self-proclaimed warlock who runs on tiger blood and was “winning” on all fronts, Charlie Sheen was actually a pretty funny dude with a successful career. The youngest son of actor Martin Sheen (that adorable dad currently starring in the progressive comedy Grace and Frankie), Charlie was destined to follow the footsteps of his father and older brother, Emilio Estevez.
Sheen’s film career really took off with his Cold War teen drama, Red Dawn, in which he acted alongside such up-and-coming ‘80s royalty as Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson, and Jennifer Grey. His dedication to the craft was exhibited in his small role in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in which he stayed up for two days straight to really obtain the look necessary for the strung-out drug addict he was portraying. Unfortunate foreshadowing aside, he went on to work in an array of films throughout the ‘80s and slid into the ‘90s with ease by acting in several films such as Major League, The Rookie, Hot Shots!, and Men at Work. In 1994, his resume was impressive enough to earn him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. However, that same year he also starred in a film that led Roger Ebert himself to describe as “dumb as a box of shredded wheat”. So, strap in your harness and pull your goggles down, because we’re talking Terminal Velocity.
Sheen stars as a clueless douchebag named Ditch who is a professional skydiving instructor. He identifies as a “flying penis” and is the bad boy of the skydiving bunch whose company is under scrutiny for violating several safety regulations required by the Federal Aviation Administration. Then one day, a beautiful blonde bombshell named Chris (Nastassja Kinski) walks in looking for a skydiving instructor, and Ditch readily jumps at the opportunity to not only leap out of a plane with her but also hopes to get her in bed by 11 pm. His plan of seduction is foiled when she dives out of the airplane unsupervised and her body splatters on the ground below. After realizing there was a second plane in their company, Ditch begins exploring who this mystery woman really is and a subsequent tangled mob story unfolds. Come to find out, Chris is a former KGB operative or as Ditch so eloquently states, “the K-G-Used to Be”, and is on the run from a Russian henchman named Kerr, played by a bleach-blonde Christopher McDonald who looks like he has destroyed more bottles of Sun-In than human lives. Ditch realizes he is nothing but a patsy in Chris’ attempt to stop the Russian mob after hijacking a shipment of their government’s gold bullion to finance a coup for the purpose of restoring the old order. The remainder of the movie is basically Chris and Ditch on the run trying to avoid the next Cold War while also attempting to prove Ditch’s innocence in Chris’ fabricated death.
The dialogue is annoyingly ridiculous and comes off as lackluster comedy given that this is an action film. There are moments where director Deran Sarafian appears to convey a sense of seriousness, but as a whole the film gets lost in translation. Mind you, these were the days where action movies were striving to live up the epic standards of Die Hard. The characters are shallow and while it’s always nice to have a kick-ass, take-charge female lead who knows her way around weapons, the character foil of Ditch and his oblivious nature wasn’t a proper complement to Chris’ femme fatale nature. Consequently, their connection comes off as disjointed and unlikely.
Despite all of these shortcomings, Terminal Velocity delivers in its stunt work. There are extensive explosion scenes and dangerous aerial skydiving galore. Ditch’s beloved vintage Dodge Challenger (a nice little Vanishing Point throwback) gets demolished by a bazooka and further reiterates the character’s materialistic mentality as he struggles to watch it burn. One scene in particular that features Kerr’s beloved red Cadillac is so well done that it makes your heart sink while watching, and the rescue sequence is Houdini-level impressive. Take a look:
This scene utilized a combination of blue screen and crafty camera work. A real Cadillac Allanté was suspended beneath a helicopter and then shot in reverse zoom, which provided the illusion of free-fall. Norman A. Kent is the aerial cinematographer responsible for pulling off all of this elaborate stunt work while also focusing on technical aspects such as lighting, backdrop, composition, and camera suits. A skydiver himself, Kent has made over 19,000 jumps during his thirty-year career. His work can also be seen in such films as Cutaway and Drop Zone.
By no means is Terminal Velocity mandatory viewing. Despite Sheen’s claims, you don’t need a normal brain or hell, even a brain at all, to process him and his performance in this film. Sheen definitely attempts to be a bitchin’ rockstar in his role as Ditch; but the real rock stars are the guys behind the scenes jumping out of planes and giving the audience one hell of a thrill ride, even if for just one rad scene.