Folks, Please Remain Seated

Air-traffic controllers call what they do "Pushing Tin." It's a maximum-stress job that calls for split-second reflexes, nerves of steel and high levels of testosterone. Mike Newell's comedy, written by "Taxi" and "Cheers" veterans Glen and Les Charles, takes us inside the Long Island radar tower where the safety of 7,000 daily flights into and out of JFK, La Guardia and Newark rests in the hands of cocky pros like Nick Falzone (John Cusack). Nick, who prides himself on being the best in the business, mans his radar screen like a guy playing the ultimate videogame, with life-or-death stakes.

The gamesmanship doesn't end with office hours. The macho competition extends into the men's private lives, as we discover when Nick's status is threatened by the arrival of the laconic, motorcycle-riding Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), whose Zen-like cool instantly rubs Nick the wrong way. Nor does it help that Russell is accompanied by a luscious, adoring wife (Angelina Jolie). Though Nick is happily married to Connie (Cate Blanchett), his obsession with one-upping Russell fuels his libidinous interest in the other man's wife.

"Pushing Tin" unfolds with a loose, "M*A*S*H"-like sense of community. You're not sure where it's headed, but with an ensemble this good the aimlessness seems invigorating. It's when the plot kicks in that Newell's movie gets less interesting. The focus narrows to the pissing match between two overgrown male egos, and the film then turns into a contrived romantic comedy. Will the estranged Cusack and Blanchett get back together? Why should we care? Their relationship was never what the movie was about.

It's frustrating to see such a promising premise, and such a delightful cast, wasted. "Elizabeth" fans will find the chameleonlike Blanchett almost un- recognizable as a Long Island housewife; Thornton is a mesmerizing underplayer; Cusack a charming, quicksilver comedian, and Jolie almost steals the show as the tattooed, vodka-swilling, poignant Mary Bell. They're all revved up; if only they had somewhere interesting to go.

Pushing Tin-20th Century Fox. Opens April 23. (2 stars)