International psychopath terrorist Charles Rane (Payne), known as "The Rane of Terror", is caught by the FBI and local authorities just as he is about to receive plastic surgery to alter his features to evade the law. The FBI make plans to return Rane to Los Angeles aboard a Lockheed L-1011 Tristar passenger aircraft, for him to stand trial.
John Cutter (Snipes) is a retired United States Secret Service agent who is trying to recover from the haunting memories of his wife's death in a convenience-store robbery, and has taken to training flight attendants in self defense, including Marti Slayton (Alex Datcher). After one class, Cutter is approached by an old friend, Sly Delvecchio (Tom Sizemore), who offers Cutter the vice presidency of a new antiterrorism unit for his company, Atlantic International Airlines. Cutter is reluctant, but Delvecchio and the company's president, Stuart Ramsey (Bruce Greenwood), convince him to accept the offer.
Cutter boards as the 57th passenger on an Atlantic International flight to Los Angeles, where Marti is one of the flight attendants. Rane and his two FBI escorts are also aboard. After the flight takes off, several men in Rane's employ, posing as flight attendants and passengers, kill the FBI agents, release Rane, and secure the plane by also shooting the captain. Cutter, in the lavatory at the time, manages to use the plane's on-board phone to warn Delvecchio of the situation, but Cutter is soon discovered by one of Rane's agents.
Cutter overpowers the agent and takes his weapon; he then uses the agent as a shield to confront Rane. Rane is indifferent and shows his ruthlessness by taking a passenger hostage and then killing him without mercy. Rane also shoots his own agent in a further show of force. Cutter realizes he is outmatched and escapes with Marti to the plane's cargo hold, dispatching another of Rane's men, Vincent, who is disguised as a caterer.
Cutter dumps the plane's fuel, forcing Rane to order the surviving pilots to land at a small Louisiana airfield. Cutter jumps from the plane as it lands, but Marti is caught by Rane and kept aboard. The local sheriff, Chief Leonard Biggs (Ernie Lively), arrests Cutter, thinking he is a terrorist, and takes him to the airport building.
Rane contacts the field's tower and demands refueling, for which he promises half the passengers will be freed. For every five minutes of resistance or indecision, Rane will order five passengers to be executed. Rane also asserts that Cutter is one of his own men turned against him. Biggs gives the go-ahead for refueling, and as the passengers are freed, Rane and his men escape from the plane, having given orders to those still on board to kill the rest of the hostages if their plans are interfered with. Cutter recognizes the passenger release as a diversion, escapes from the sheriff, and chases Rane and his men into a local county fair. FBI agents arrive and confirm Cutter's true identity to Biggs. Cutter is able to kill one of Rane's men and gets into a fight with Rane before police arrive and capture him.
Back at the tower, Rane announces that if he does not contact the plane and give flight clearance, his men aboard have been instructed to kill the rest of the hostages. The FBI agents arrange to return Rane to the plane, escorted by two agents, with plans to have a sniper take down Rane and allow them to storm the plane to save the hostages. However, the sniper is Vincent, who kills the escorts, but is shot dead by Cutter, and Rane makes it inside safely. Rane orders the pilots to take off, while Cutter, with Biggs' help, manages to jump onto the speeding plane before it takes off.
Inside, Cutter deals with more of Rane's accomplices before getting into a fight with Rane. Their fight blows out one of the plane's windows, causing the bulkhead door to blow out due to the explosive cabin decompression. Cutter manages to get Rane close to the open door and kicks him out of the plane, sending him plummeting to his death. The plane quickly returns to the airfield, where the FBI agents secure Rane's remaining agents and the remaining hostages are freed. Amid congratulations and celebration, Marti and Cutter make their quiet escape into the distance hand-in-hand, but not before Chief Biggs offers them a ride.Wesley Snipes as John Cutter is a former cop turned airline security expert haunted by the death of his wife.
Bruce Payne as Charles Rane is a sadistic international terrorist mastermind who hijacked the jet to escape custody.
Tom Sizemore as Sly Delvecchio is Cutter's old friend who offers him a high-ranking job.
Alex Datcher as Marti Slayton is a flight attendant on board the jet.
Bruce Greenwood as Stuart Ramsey is the president of Atlantic International Airlines.
Robert Hooks as Dwight Henderson is an FBI agent.
Elizabeth Hurley as Sabrina Ritchie is Rane's henchwoman disguised as a flight attendant.
Michael Horse as Forget is Rane's henchman.
Marc Macaulay as Vincent is Rane's henchman.
Ernie Lively as Chief Leonard Biggs is the local sheriff.
Duchess Tomasello as Mrs. Edwards
William Edward Roberts as Matthew
James Short as Allen
Gary Rorman as Douglas
Joel Fogel as Dr. Bauman
Jane McPherson as Nurse
Brett Rice as a Cop
Although supposedly set partly at a small airport in Louisiana, filming took place in Snipes' hometown of Orlando, Florida, with Orlando-Sanford International Airport standing in for "Lake Lucille" airport in Louisiana. The airport's former combination main hangar and control tower from its time as Naval Air Station Sanford was used for many key scenes just prior to its demolition after filming.
Passenger 57 was released on November 6, 1992, and opened at number one rank in 1,734 theaters. The opening weekend receipts were $10,513,925. The film's final US domestic gross receipts were $44,065,653. Passenger 57 is one of the films that launched Wesley Snipes' career in the action genre. Because of this film's success, Wesley Snipes was cast in lead roles of other features, including Money Train, Drop Zone, Demolition Man, The Art of War, and the Blade trilogy.
The film received mixed reviews. Critics praised Wesley Snipes and Bruce Payne's performances, but panned the script. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 23% rating based on reviews from 22 critics. Marcus Trower, of Empire magazine, stated that Bruce Payne was "a brilliantly disconcerting madman. With his flowing blond Jesus locks, armor-piercing stare and casual sadism, he makes Hannibal Lecter look like a social worker – and like Sir Anthony Hopkins' serial killer, part of the man's menace is in the apparent contradiction between his articulate, well-spoken English and his off-hand brutality." The Radio Times stated that Payne and Snipes both gave 'charismatic turns' in the film. The New York Times stated that Payne brought a 'tongue-in-cheek humor to the psychopathic fiend' that he played. A reviewer for People magazine stated that "Bruce Payne steals the plane—and the movie".
DVD was released in Region 1 in the United States on May 27, 1998 and Region 2 in the United Kingdom on April 26, 1999, it was distributed by Warner Home Video.