Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Air America wants to be serious about the clandestine CIA war in Laos and be a laugh riot at
the same time. Mel Gibson works overtime trying to be charming and fails; Robert Downey does
slightly better. Nods to reality finally wind up in a phoney idealistic ending that does nothing to
make the show more palatable. An illegal war just can't be turned into a M*A*S*H yuk-fest
as easily as the makers of Air America think it can. What we're left with are some naive
politics that work against the authors' intentions, and a lot of impressive aerial stunts.
LA traffic jockey Billy Covington (Robert Downey Jr.) loses his pilot's credentials
by flying too low over the freeway, and is recruited to join a band of secret CIA pilots in Laos
known as Air America. In between orgiastic parties the group does odd war-related errands in the
war-torn country, including run opium for corrupt general Soong (Burt Kwouk). Billy forms a fast
friendship with gonzo pilot Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson), who in addition to having a Laotioan wife and
children has his own gun running operation going on on the side. Merriment ensues.
Air America tries to present an historical tragedy as a satirical platform for broad comedy,
and it doesn't work. Everyone is corrupt and the entire war is a sham, so the best way to behave for
these wild & crazy pilots is to contribute lots of irresponsible antics of their own. The Vietnam
"conflict" killed tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Southeast Asians, and just paying
lip service to the hypocrisy doesn't compensate. The average viewer doesn't give a damn about
history and will walk away from Air America thinking it was a big beer party with crazy
The story repeats the basic flaws of M*A*S*H but with half the charm. Its idea of fun is for
Gibson to dangle Downey on a rope from a helicopter and fly him at low level over the countryside,
narrowly missing temple towers, etc. A laugh riot! As the straight man, Downey can make some of
these scenes work but Gibson's character just isn't there. Being cool in a crazy war does not give
one a superior position. And these pilots aren't helpful surgeons, they're mercenaries. Further
definition: war criminals.
Perhaps Richard Rush and the original book had something different in mind, but as finished Air America
is a pale imitation of M*A*S*H, right down to a Buddhist monk blessing the airplanes. Most of
the jokes fall flat out of obviousness or just plain lack of wit. Mel Gibson's Gene Ryack says he respects
the locals and has a Laotian wife & kids stashed away on the side, but he leads the same debauched life
as his other Air America pals, who are treated more like Animal House rejects than the sometimes
dedicated (and idealistic) adventurers that they were. Guns are fun. Airplane crashes are a joke. Heroin
smuggling is almost a joke, except for a few tsk tsk touches here and there.
All-purpose Asian stereotype actor Burt Kwouk is an object of scorn; after the kissy kissy bargirls
and prostitutes, all we have to "respect" in Laos are a few wizened villagers. Even they are eager to
make a weapons deal with our hero. This is after Iran-Contra, but dealing with arms in a war zone is treated
as a necessary moneymaking proposition. Hey, our too-hip pilot hero needs to retire, ya know? Air America
is an extremely conservative movie pretending to be righteously liberal.
The CIA and congressional clowns played by Lane Smith and others are too cartoonish to even discuss.
Nancy Travis'es aid mission is only there to provide a noble-out for the crooked Mel Gibson; it's as dumb as
a cheap dodge in Chuck Norris movie. Art La Fleur's wacked-out flyer seems to come from a different kind
of comedy. The film's idea of sophisticated humor is to intercut Richard Nixon with the snout of a pig being
airlifted out to a Laotian village. But the overall message is that white adventurers are cool, SE Asians
are irrelevant, and "the war" is a vast center of corruption that excuses any and all selfish behavior.
The flying scenes are particularly well done in this handsomely mounted film. Ex Sam Peckinpah editor
Roger Spottiswoode keeps things moving but can't do much with the often witless script, which wants to
criticize Air America and bad war politics but really sanitizes them. I have to believe that there were
initial intentions behind Air America that somehow drifted astray.
Lion's Gate's DVD of Air America looks fine. It's the first time I've seen the film in its
full anamorphic width and the air stunts look more impressive than ever. 1
The extras provide some controversy but don't correct the trim on the movie's unfocused tone and spirit.
There's the usual making-of and some storyboards, but also a feature commentary from writer and coproducer
John Eskow, and a longer new docu called Return Flight. It does a little digging into the real Air
America, mainly presenting a couple of duelling "historians" with conflicting opinions about Air America's
alleged drug trading. Neither side's arguments are compelling. The subject is then dropped and the rest of
the show lets actors and producers chirp about what a great shoot the film was. The CIA should be pleased,
as both Air America and this featurette keep the subject down at the dumb level of drugs, instead
of asking why the US continues to maintain and supply illegal armies around the world, for "secret" purposes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Air America rates:
Supplements: commentary, featurettes, storyboards
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 31, 2004
1. I do wonder why one
airplane over rural Laos attracts more sustained anti-aircraft fire than a WW2 bomber over Berlin. Half
the Viet Cong army must be down there. Or are Laotian warlords just shooting back all the arms that
Air America is giving them?
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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