Sometime in 1992 or 1993, somewhere in Hollywood, someone had a thought: What if we made a movie like Point Break, except with skydiving instead of surfing? Somehow, this individual managed to convince his or her colleagues that this was a good idea, and Drop Zone was born.
Though comparing a movie to Point Break is not the most generous way to start a review, I do really like Drop Zone. It’s fun, and I think it’s held up well in the 13 years since I last saw it. Aside from a joke about dating “Mongolian feminists” near the beginning, it’s also one of those films you can watch without being horrified by sexism and racism at every turn.
First, take the main characters. Wesley Snipes plays Pete Nessip, a federal marshal tracking down the skydiving hoodlums who killed his brother. Yancy Butler, who went on to play Sara Pezzini in the Witchblade television series, plays a professional skydiver named Jessie Crossman who helps Nessip because her ex-boyfriend was one of the hoodlums but ended up on their bad side. Both characters are fully developed human beings, with strengths and weaknesses. Nessip is a strong, tough guy, but he also has a sense of humor and even silliness. Crossman is known for being wild and has a history of trouble with the law, but she’s also a loyal friend and skilled athlete.
Yancy Butler’s Crossman is one of my favorite characters I’ve reviewed thus far on Heroine Content. She’s sexy, but not dressed like a backup singer for a 1980s hair metal band. She has a sense of humor but she’s not comic relief. And hey, she jumps out of planes. In fact, she throws Nessip out of a plane without a parachute. He rewards her with a punch that knocks her down, and she laughs. She decides to work with him for her own reasons. He respects her skills and her knowledge even though he’s a federal marshal and she has a probation officer. She’s never bait or the weak link, and though she gets stuck with the girl fight at the end, it’s not a girl fight I would want to be anywhere near. I don’t think she achieves the icon status of Sarah Connor, Ripley, or Tank Girl, but she’s a credit to action heroines everywhere.
Neither Snipes nor Butler were apparently supposed to be in the movie as it was originally conceived. The part of Nessip was for Steven Segall, and the part of Crossman was written for a man. Wikipedia’s entry on Drop Zone contains the following bit of trivia, unsourced:
The fact that the two main characters — Nessip (who is African American) and Crossman (who is white) — are not linked romantically is contrary to Hollywood plot conventions. This might hint at the reluctance of the producers to stage an interracial romance, but the part of Crossman was originally written for a man.
When I went looking for additional information, I found a review of Shanghai Noon by George Wu that also noted this in passing:
When the stars of Hollywood pictures are not white as with Chow Yun Fat in The Replacement Killers and Wesley Snipes in Drop Zone and they get partnered with women of different ethnicity who would expectedly be the love interest, ala Speed, they strangely do not connect.
I had really appreciated the platonic nature of the relationship between Nessip and Crossman in the movie while watching it. It was such a relief to see a man and a woman working on something together, but not ending up all googly-eyed. I don’t think the romance thing should never happen in a movie, but it’s a cliche at this point and it should be used sparingly.
Having read the comments above, though, I now wonder where the lack of googly eyes came from. Sensible writers who didn’t feel the need to insert romance just because a man and a woman were on the same screen? It was too late to re-tool the script for love when they made Crossman a woman? Racism that reared its ugly head when the switch was made from Segall to Snipes?
If it is racism, which I believe it may be given Wu’s comment about seeing a pattern, what would fix it? For a lot of the movies I review here, it’s easy to identify what I would change about that particular movie to make it less sexist or racist. But for Drop Zone, I don’t particularly want Nessip and Crossman to connect romantically and reinforce the cliche. I think I can keep liking the fact that there isn’t a love connection here, while acknowledging that it may very well have happened for a bad reason. The solution isn’t to change this one film, it’s to have a variety within the genre. Sometimes they fall in love, sometimes they don’t, without any unwritten rules that decide that outcome based on the race or ethnicity of the actors involved.
The rest of the casting in Drop Zone isn’t perfect, and it’s better for white women than for people of color. Within twenty minutes of the film opening, we meet not only Crossman, but another female skydiver and a female pilot, both of whom have speaking parts. Women don’t quite have equal representation among major characters, but Crossman is not The Only One. Unfortunately, Nessip is. The scenes at both a skydivers’ bar and a pre-jump meeting both have a decent number of people of color in the crowd, but after Nessip’s brother (Malcolm Jamal-Warner) is killed early on, there’s just one guy with a speaking role.
I give Drop Zone three stars, though, because Jessie Crossman is a fabulous heroine and Pete Nessip is written and played far beyond the stereotype of cop, or thug in a cop suit. Definitely a strong contender.
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.