April 23, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Pushing Tin” kicks off as a riveting dramatization of the pressure-cooker lives of air-traffic controllers. The movie takes us right inside the Terminal Radar Approach Control center, a Long Island facility that monitors the collective airspace over Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark airports, and for a while, at least, the sheer journalistic novelty of what we’re seeing grips us in a casually exotic way.

The movie sets up a spiky rivalry between two of the controllers. John Cusack, who may never outgrow his lanky boyishness, is Nick Falzone, the center’s veteran ace, a tightly strung hotshot who works at the edge of his brain. Nick’s competitor is a swaggering newcomer named Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton). An enigmatic daredevil who begins every shift by placing a ceremonial feather behind one ear (he’s half Native American), Russell has devised his own unique system in which he deliberately brings planes within dangerously close range of each other. Thornton, weaving his eyebrows together with Zen malevolence, has never played this cool a cucumber before, and he makes Russell hypnotic in his control-board bravado.

At a weekend barbecue, Russell arrives with his hot young wife, Mary, a punked-out alcoholic nymph who instantly has all her husband’s colleagues panting in her direction. This is the first high-profile movie role for Angelina Jolie, who made a splash in HBO’s ”Gia”, and already it’s clear that she’s that rare thing, a sex bomb who is also a major actress. In ”Pushing Tin”, Jolie brandishes her bangs, her crooked bee-stung pout, and her tawny ripe body with seductive abandon, yet she also makes Mary a wounded, insidious basket case. Breaking down in tears at a supermarket, she runs into Nick, who consoles her by taking her out to dinner and then, in a spontaneous act of betrayal, going even further.

Nick and Russell are now locked in a torturous showdown. Their face-off is supposed to fire up the already hellacious experience of being an air-traffic controller. The high-strung Nick is nudged right over the edge. The trouble is, it’s the movie itself that turns crazy. The script, by sitcom veterans Glen and Les Charles (the cocreators of ”Cheers”), seems to devolve into a season’s worth of hokey compacted episodes, with every 15 minutes showcasing a dramatic device more outlandishly cheesy than the last, be it a bomb scare, Connie taking impromptu French lessons from Russell (and using the occasion of her father’s funeral to show off her new language skills!), or, in the film’s single most loony-tunes moment, Russell commanding Nick to jump into an icy stream in order to purge himself of guilt. By this point, ”Pushing Tin” has been purged of all dramatic sense, making you wish that Newell and company had had the gumption to finish what they so enticingly started.

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