The Dire Loss of Control: 'Charlie Victor Romeo'

Charlie Victor Romeo conjures a delicate balance of anxiety and inevitability amid terrifying chaos.

Charlie Victor Romeo

Director: Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, Karlyn Michelson
Cast: Patrick Daniels, Irving Gregory, Noel Dinneen, Sam Zuckerman, Debbie Troche, Nora Woolley
Rated: NR
Studio: Unconscious and 3-Legged Dog
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-01-29 (Limited release)

"Okay, all right." "Shit." "Mellow it out." "Okay. Okay. Oh shit." The scramble of words and the close shots of red faces during this moment in Charlie Victor Romeo are simultaneously riveting and hard to watch. It's a moment that is repeated several times during the movie, which is based on transcripts of black box cockpit recordings from planes that crashed. The scenes' endings are similar, as the dialogue turns urgent, alarms sound, and expressions contort. And yet, each of the exchanges among the cockpit crewmembers is variously chilling, as it becomes clearer and clearer to them what you know is coming.

Premiering in 3D at the Film Forum on 29 January, the film features a group of performers who play multiple parts, differently organized in each reenactment. Each scene begins similarly, as the camera slowly pulls out from the piloting team seated at an instrument panel. The set is spare, the lighting dark, recalling the film's origins as a stage play in 1999. They share a couple of minutes of small talk at take off, or in mid air, until a catastrophe occurs and the crew contends with crisis.

In one case, USAF Yukla 27 in Alaska, September 1995, this catastrophe is a flock of birds. This scene is introduced by the sound of geese over a black screen, an eerie framing of the inevitable, and when the crew begins describing what's happened to the ground crew ("We've lost number two engine, we ran into some birds"), it's not yet clear how much the pilots comprehend their immediate future. They all go down endeavoring to stop the crash, their efforts stopped short by a loud sound and a black screen, then a title card listing the number of fatalities.

The effect is remarkable, as you know part of the story as the characters know another part of it, what might be done, what certain language or circumstances might mean. Such discrete bits of understanding raise questions and anticipations, yours and, you're guessing, the crewmembers'. The exchanges are at once cryptic and plain, describing what's happening, suggesting the strange genius and frightening mystery of how planes work. On Aeroperú Flight 603, which took off from Lima, Peru in 1996, the crash is caused by duct tape left accidentally on static ports by a maintenance crew: the plane's computer system is unable to get the information necessary to fly it, so that most of this scene consists of the crew's shock at what they see on their panels and what they cannot know: how fast are they going? at what angle are they ascending? where is the ground?

The crew of Aeroperú Flight 603 faces this emergency with admirable pragmatism, comprehending the dire loss of control but also trying to find a way around it, seeking location coordinates or "landing" options from the team on the ground ("We have problems here for reading instruments, you will have to help us here"). Their language turns poetic, abstract, as if written by Samuel Beckett or maybe Mamet. "We have speed." "What power do we have now?" "It's fictitious, it's fictitious."

As this team works feverishly to find where they are, how fast they're going, in a cockpit that isolates them by definition. While you might admire their calm and their skill and their ingenuity in situations they've never practiced, you're also horrified by the very nature of their situations, how much they rely on constructs, on ideas of space and time rendered on monitors, managed by levers and buttons. On one level, everything they're doing is fictitious, even as it is utterly material. They turn left, they pull on a throttle, they do their best to disengage autopilot, they barely look at each other, completely absorbed by the life and death situation in front of them. "Are we descending now?" asks a crew member aboard Aeroperú Flight 603. They work to know, they must know, they can't know.

Directed by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Karlyn Michelson, the film conjures a delicate balance of anxiety and inevitability, the repeated staging of each scene and the same performers in varying roles offering pattern amid the chaos. "Flap up, flap up," calls out one crew member. " "Push hard, push hard," says another. As you hear these directions, you're pressed to imagine what someone might have thought or how she must have felt in this moment. For, as much as Charlie Victor Romeo constructs story, as much as it sketches beginnings, middles, and ends for each flight, it also conveys the unknown. "Should we free-fall?", asks one crew member. Who can know?


From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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