Believe it or not, the Denzel Washington drama “Flight” is director Robert Zemeckis’s first live-action film, since 2000’s “Cast Away.” Zemeckis has worked on all types of tales, but over the past decade especially, he has truly embraced digital filmmaking, churning out three CG motion-capture flicks. So after 10 years of directing family-friendly animated movies, you would think he'd be a bit rusty when it comes to helming an intense R-rated drama. Thankfully he's not.

“Flight” concentrates on airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a man who plays harder than he works, overindulging in booze, women, and drugs. He’s a great pilot and he knows it, walking with the swagger of a man who feels indestructible. Whitaker’s fragile work/life balance is disrupted however, by an in-flight malfunction that causes his plane to crash. He miraculously lands it and saves lives, but investigation into the incident casts public light on the troubling aspects of his personal life. 

To call the first act explosive would be an understatement. From the opening moments Whitaker stumbles out of bed, you’re inherently certain that he’s on a collision course with catastrophe. His flight becomes a rapidly growing snowball of tension, as Zemeckis builds up to the circumstances of the crash.

Once everything descends into chaos, Zemeckis puts you right there on the plane, forcing you to experience this horrific and terrifying experience firsthand. The shaking cabin, camera, and tight spaces add to the horror, but nothing is as scarring as the moments following the crash, where the camera takes on the perspective of Whitaker being dragged from the plane. His brief flashes of consciousness during the carnage, stick with you long after the movie is over.

Following the crash, “Flight” settles down to become a slower-paced character drama. And although the remainder isn’t as thrilling, it’s still captivating, like a sickening accident that you can’t ignore. As one man descends into an endless spiral of substance abuse and lies, you’re constantly shocked by the moral depths that he reaches. Unbelievably, he passes up so many chances to straighten himself out, that when he finally hits rock bottom, it’s difficult to find any sympathy for him.

Denzel Washington gives a superb performance, proving once again that he’s just as skilled at playing arrogant antiheroes as he is at portraying lovable protagonists. His character is a fascinating egotist who is simultaneously haunted by crushing regret. Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood are also solid as a lawyer and union rep trying their best to help Whitaker escape unscathed. Although the best supporting performance is by John Goodman, who is only around for a few minutes, but steals every scene that he’s in as Whitaker’s kooky Southern-fried drug dealer Harling Mays.

Admittedly, the film’s less zippy pace after the crash almost causes you to lose interest midway through, and the Rolling Stones tunes make “Flight” feel a bit too much like a Scorsese rip-off. However the strong acting and the rest of the songs on the soundtrack prevent the tale from sliding into mediocrity. Regardless of whether you think Whitaker’s a jerk, you’ll still find yourself rocking out with him to the Stones, Bill Withers, Joe Cocker, and Red Hot Chili Peppers until he finds clarity.      

My Grade: A-