Ajay Devgn’s third film as director sees his character face turbulence in the air and on the ground. Devgn’s pilot Vikrant Khanna, after a night of alcohol-fuelled revelry, takes a series of questionable decisions during a rocky flight.

The flight from Dubai to Kochi runs smack into a cyclone. Ignoring the counsel of co-pilot Tanya Albuquerque (Rakul Preet Singh), Vikrant risks every life on board to somehow return to terra firma amidst a storm of Biblical proportions.

A government body, represented by the lawyer Narayan Vedant (Amitabh Bachchan), interrogates Vikrant and Tanya on choices made and not made. Did Vikrant drink before, and more dangerously, during the journey? Did he take a nap mid-air? Based on interviews and recordings of in-flight chatter as well as conversations with Air Traffic Control staff, Narayan builds up a solid case against Vikrant. Waiting eagerly for the verdict is the boss of Vikrant’s airline (Boman Irani), who is in the middle of a business deal with a potential buyer.

The themes of the screenplay, by Sandeep Kewlani and Aamil Keeyan Khan, go beyond the film’s specific setting. In playing devil’s advocate, Runway 34 seems to be suggesting that we should not jump to judge and should make room for empathy and evidence before passing instant verdicts. That thinking could apply to anybody from entrepreneurs accused of shady practices to drivers who run over pavement dwellers.

Runway 34 is evenly balanced between offenders and the offended before it goes on the defensive. A film about a serious lapse in safety, which endangers the lives of hundreds, turns out to be a storm in a teacup, less effective than the fury that threatens to swallow Vikrant and his co-fliers.

Rakul Preet Singh and Amitabh Bachchan in Runway 34 (2022). Courtesy Ajay Devgn Ffilms/Panorama Films.

While claiming to be based on an actual incident, Runway 34 hews closely to the Hollywood productions Flight (2012) and Sully (2012). Both films tap into every flier’s nightmare about plane crashes and both films are centred on near-miraculous landings.

Runway 34, aided by Aseem Bajaj’s cinematography, production design by Sabu Cyril, Sriram Iyengar and Sujeet Sawant, and laudable visual effects, is best when airborne. Devgn is as much in control as is Vikrant over the passengers, who run the gamut from sweet-faced grandmother to annoying know-it-all, and the escalating terror within the cockpit.

The pre-interval section hints at a potentially fair-minded portrait of human error. But the post-interval sections turn a short trip into a long-haul flight.

The descent into simplicity is forewarned by Boman Irani’s aggressive airline owner and Amitabh Bachchan’s overly familiar patrician. Bachchan’s rumble is sometimes a mumble during his interrogation scenes. The bizarre extreme close-ups are particularly harsh on an actor who is a year short of 80 and looks it every inch.

Tautly performed, with a sharp turn by Rakul Preet Singh, Runway 34 centres on Ajay Devgn’s coolly macho hero. Without enough material to justify the 145-minute runtime, Devgn keeps calm and carries on, as he has done in nearly every film. Vikrant could have been a flawed hero, all too human in his mistakes, but instead emerges as a vanilla hero, the kind who is never wrong.

Runway 34 (2022).