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Air America

Air America
Lion's Gate
1990 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 112 min. / Street Date July 20, 2004 / 19.98
Starring Mel Gibson, Robert Downey Jr., Nancy Travis, Burt Kwouk, Lane Smith, Art LaFleur, Marshall Bell
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Production Designer Allan Cameron
Film Editor John Bloom, Lois Freeman-Fox
Original Music Charles Gross
Written by John Eskow, Richard Rush from a book by Christopher Robbins
Produced by John Eskow, Michael J. Kagan, Mario Kassar, Daniel Melnick, Allen Shapiro, Andrew G. Vajn
Directed by Roger Spottiswoode

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 airplane tricks.

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:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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 2007 Glenn Erickson

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