Seeing Double: 'Terminal Velocity' Vs 'Drop Zone', 1994's Dueling Movies About Irresponsible Skydiving

(Welcome to Seeing Double, a series where two strangely similar films released around the same time are put head-to-head. This time, we look skyward for falling objects that are closer than they appear.)

The premise of this column is to take a closer look at those not-so rare instances where two competing film studios raced to theaters with remarkably similar projects. They're typically high-concept ideas involving volcanic disasters, doomed expeditions to Mars, or terrorist attacks on the White House. Sometimes, though, they're about bad guys skydiving.

Okay, one time it was about bad guys skydiving, but that still feels like one time too many. The world had already been gifted with Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break in 1991, and among the many memorable scenes in the film are sequences showing playful criminals enjoying the high of falling through the sky. Paramount and Disney's Hollywood Pictures, never ones to shy away from a hot trend, immediately got to work developing films about murder, theft, and the perils of skydiving with murderous thieves.

The race was on, and three years later – and released just three months apart – the world was made witness to two high-flying action romps with killer tag lines. "It's not the drop the kills you..." warns the poster for Terminal Velocity, while Drop Zone's points out that "Something dangerous is in the air." How can you not love the 90s?

Keep reading for a head-to-head look at 1994's dueling movies about irresponsible skydiving.

The Story

Dick "Ditch" Brodie already has his share of federal violations threatening to shut down his skydiving school thanks to his penchant for stunts, showboating, and shenanigans, but his problems only get worse when a young woman dies on his watch. He takes her up despite her lack of training, and when she jumps without him she slams into the earth at terminal velocity. (He said the title!) Killing a customer is bad business, but Ditch soon discovers that the woman is actually very much alive and needs his help in stopping the Russian mob. Also, she's ex-KGB and an untested rocket car with probably come into play at some point.

U.S. Marshals escorting a prisoner are ambushed mid-air as hijackers blow a whole in the 747 and parachute out with the prisoner in hand, and while Marshal Pete Nessip lost his brother and partner in the attack he hasn't lost his sense of justice. Fired for blending his grief with attitude and insubordination, Pete goes looking for answers with a super cool skydiving exhibition team. Answers don't come cheap, though, so Pete is forced to join the team, practice landing correctly in the drop zone (he did it again!), and kick ass in the regional competition. I guess?

Winner: Drop Zone's story gets a bit messy and convoluted despite its simple beginnings, and I'd be lying if I said it makes much in the way of sense. Bad guys accessing federal NOC lists is a familiar enough setup, but hijacking a plane to kidnap a hacker so you can parachute into the DEA headquarters and steal said NOC list directly off the agency's mainframe computer system just so you can turn around and sell it to the highest bidder? Well that's a plan too crazy to fail. Terminal Velocity is a bit more straightforward in its tale, and after a couple minor surprises it's a more traditional tale of good guys versus bad guys. Of course, the good guys here end the film being awarded medals by the Russian government so... the winner is Drop Zone.

The Filmmakers

Terminal Velocity's writer David Twohy was riding high in 1994 as co-writer of The Fugitive (1993), although I'd argue Warlock (1989) is every bit as impressive an entry on his resume. He's a solid genre talent and would later go on to write films like Waterworld (1995), G.I. Jane (1997), Pitch Black (2000), and one of my faves, A Perfect Getaway (2009). Director Deran Sarafian, meanwhile, lacked anything resembling Twohy's name recognition, but he did manage a modest hit with the Jean-Claude Van Damme flick Death Warrant (1990). Still, he directed six films before Terminal Velocity and just one after, so make of that what you will. Don't cry, though, as he's working pretty steadily in television.

By contrast, Drop Zone's director was already a filmmaker with numerous hits to his name. John Badham's pre-1994 filmography includes the varied likes of Saturday Night Fever (1977), Dracula (1979), Blue Thunder (1983), WarGames (1983), Short Circuit (1986), Stakeout (1987), Point of No Return (1993), and more. The "skydiving movie" curse carried over, though, and after this film – his fourteenth – he only made three more before leaving film behind for television. Only one of the film's two writers had a prior credit, and that's John Bishop with The Package (1989). Not a bad movie necessarily, but not one that left audiences excited for his next project.

Winner: I'm of the belief that writers are every bit as important as directors when it comes to filmmaking, but that equation gets weighted some when the film in question is action-oriented. To that end, you'd think there's really no room for debate here. If I'm watching an action movie in the 80s/90s the name Badham is going to catch my eye. Based on expectations then you'd think the winner would be easy in this category, but then you watch the movies and realize that Badham delivers an embarrassing amount of legit terrible faux skydiving scenes. So yeah, the winner is Terminal Velocity for not screaming "this is fake!" every ten minutes.

The Cast

Terminal Velocity's big draw was star Charlie Sheen, and while his heyday was arguably the late 80s he seemed to be fairly in demand through the 90s. He headlined three wide releases in 1994 – The Chase, Major League II, and this one – so clearly he had some degree of attraction to audiences and studios. Nastassja Kinski plays the KGB agent/love interest, and we get a couple appealing supporting players in James Gandolfini and Christopher McDonald. It's not a bad roster, and I'd go so far as to say the cast isn't unappealing.

Wesley Snipes headlines Drop Zone which automatically elevates it above the competition, and he came to the film on something of an intermittent hot streak with New Jack City (1991), White Men Can't Jump (1992), and Rising Sun (1993). (Yes, Demolition Man was 1993 too, but I can't spin its box-office into a hit.) The film wisely pairs Snipes with a worthy villain too in the form of Gary Busey who, it must be said, is impossible to hate when he's in bad guy mode. Add in Michael Jeter, Grace Zabriskie, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and Corin Nemec for flavor, and you have a well-rounded cast.

Winner: Both films deliver solid supporting player rosters, but Drop Zone is the easy winner when you factor in the lead. Sorry Charlie.

Critical Reception

This probably won't surprise you, but neither of 1994's skydiving action romps left film critics applauding. Terminal Velocity sits at a 17% on Rotten Tomatoes with a barely better audience score of 22%. A trend in the reviews is pointing out that Sheen's performance suggests he thought he was making another Hot Shots (1991) sequel, so yeah, eesh. Drop Zone is still rotten but fares a bit better with 41% from critics and 31% from audiences. I'm boggled by reviews praising the film's skydiving stunts – we see some vaguely impressive wide shots, but as mentioned so much of the action looks about as realistic as a Toonces the Cat sketch from Saturday Night Live.

Winner: Neither film can really be called a winner here, but mathematically speaking the category goes to Drop Zone.

Budget and Box-Office

I have no idea why or how either of these films cost as much as they did, as neither put the money fully on the screen, but Hollywood accounting is an elusive beast. Terminal Velocity cost $50 million before marketing, and it's worldwide gross? Under $17m. Ouch. Drop Zone cost nearly as much at $45m but saw a better return making almost $29m in theaters. As a comparison to other action movies released in 1994, both Speed and Timecop cost a mere $30m each and managed to deliver far more compelling action beats *and* far bigger box-office. Just sayin'.

Winner: Again, both movies bombed and failed to make back their budgets, but the winner is Drop Zone for being slightly less of a loser.

My Take

Neither of these movies are really any good. Is there fun to be had with Sheen talking about being a "flying penis" and Snipes going against his body's finely tuned athleticism to play dumb and klutzy when it comes to skydiving? Sure. Is it worth the time investment? That's a question only you can answer, but if I'm watching an action movie from 1994 that I don't have to write about it sure as hell wouldn't be one of these two. (Because it would probably be True Lies or The Professional.)

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