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Flight of the Intruder

Flight of the Intruder

1991 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 114 min. / Street Date July 1, 2003 / 14.99
Starring Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, Brad Johnson, Rosanna Arquette, Tom Sizemore, J. Kenneth Campbell, Jared Chandler, Dann Florek, Madison Mason, Ving Rhames
Cinematography Fred J. Koenekamp
Film Editors Steve Mirkovich, Carroll Timothy O'Meara, Peck Prior
Original Music Basil Poledouris
Written by Robert Dillon, David Shaber from the novel by Stephen Coonts
Produced by Brian E. Frankish, John McTiernan, Ralph Winter, Robert Rehme, Mace Neufeld
Directed by John Milius

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

John Milius is a great storyteller who has his own warrior's perspective on everything historical. With a gun-bug bigger than the NRA, he's produced and directed some good entertainments and some simply awful ones. The Wind and the Lion is a superb action adventure where his politics side with the lone 'terrorist' Berber pirate. His good take on gangland history is overwhelmed by repetitive gun battles in the exploitative Dillinger. While providing basic scripts for filmmakers ranging from John Huston to Francis Coppola, he was dunned as a right-wing fanatic for Red Dawn, a film with a throwback concept to Invasion U.S.A. that he says was distorted by his producers.

Milius can be 100% dreadful (Big Wednesday), and simply overbaked and pompous (Farewell to the King), but 1991's Flight of the Intruder was perfect material for him - an old-fashioned war movie about honor between fighting men. It's a well-directed and lavishly produced combat picture, but the fresh realism is nullified by script clichés that stretch back to silent pictures. Still, for a 90s combat picture, it's way ahead of lame turkeys like Navy Seals.


Hot-Shot A-6 pilot Jake Grafton (Brad Johnson) loses his bombardier while knocking out SAM missiles over North Vietnam, and goes to Subic bay for R&R, where he meets pilot's widow Callie (Rosanna Arquette) and his new right hand man, Virgil Cole (Willem Dafoe). Cole is a third-tour man who loves blowing up SAM missile sites, and together they cook up a completely illegal and near-suicidal personal mission: hitting a SAM missile facility in the middle of Hanoi, an off-limits target.

John Ford's Wings of Eagles is about Spig Wead, a Navy flier and writer in the 20s who turned out lots of formulaic 'service films'. In them, actors like Wallace Beery brawled and boozed, but showed themselves to be true-blue patriots when it came time to pull off that big rescue/major battle, and win the girl.  1

The Paramount brass probably saw this as a chance to replay their 'MTV music video' combat success Top Gun, but the script of Flight of the Intruder follows the old Spig Wead formula. Our hero takes his job personally, goes on an R&R where he brawls and beds a comely wench, and then sticks his neck out for his personal war. Naturally, instead of being hung from the yardarm for this outrage, he instead gets to prove himself in a gung-ho mission, and rescues none other than his own commanding officer.

The acting is mostly superior to the task. Danny Glover gives his tough-guy commander role far more credibility than it deserves. Willem Dafoe and Brad Johnson are interesting and believable as naval aviators  2 and are almost able to make the idea of flying a personal bombing mission into an enemy capital (eyeroll here) credible.

There's a place for old-fashioned rah-rah recruiting-type war movies, and Flight of the Intruder gets points for not being one of the kind that pretends that killing is like a big video game, and that the world can be divided neatly into Our Boys in Uniform, and foreign targets. But it still suffers for bogging itself down in Vietnam politics. Our trigger happy heroes only hit legitimate military targets, see. Their secret mission precipitates wholesale bombing of the North by Richard Nixon, and their suppression of SAM missiles is to allow our B-52s to carpet-bomb freely without being disturbed.

Just as Buster Keaton asserted that there was no way to make a Civil War movie with the South being the bad guys, Savant believes there's no way to make a movie about bombing missions where the bombers are the good guys. As with most post-Vietnam movies (Apocalypse Now did not start a trend), the logic here is that underdogs defending their country by shooting down attacking planes are war criminals. When his bombardier is killed by a wild rifle shot from below (shades of 1941, here!), that's all the justification our pilot hero needs to go bomb the bejeesus out of something. And such a clear target, those acres of missiles in the middle of Hanoi - I was told that Communist War factories were all underground.

The end of Flight of the Intruder turns out to be a replay of the end of The Bridges at Toko-Ri, only even less satisfying. This time, air cover is instantaneous and our heroes can all bunch together around their fallen plane and not be detected. The little anonymous Commies expose themselves to strafing runs rather than simply close in and annihilate the pilots, or wait until the air cover goes away. It's total fantasy land, like in the 1930 Wead movies. We dissolve back to the deck of Uncle Sam's carrier, where the survivors compare bandages (hey, Jake's hand is gonna be just fine) and talk about glory and promotions.

Flight of the Intruder's pilots talk a smokescreen of antiwar sentiment: Why are we here? / I don't want to hurt civilians / We're going to lose. But when it comes time to act, they embody a warrior ethic that justifies all, so long as one's personal identity and warrior destiny is upheld. Losing a meaningless war means hitting harder. It might as well be a Samurai film. Military cooperation on this one must have hit an all-time record.

John Milius is not credited as a screenwriter, but both the shape of the film and many details are all his. The 'fun camaraderie' of aviators whoring and brawling in a foreign port, among all those accomodating but irrelevant natives, comes right out of Big Wednesday. He even manages to 'dedicate' another one of his pictures to Sam Peckinpah, this time by ending with a dialogue line from The Wild Bunch.

Danny Glover and Willem Dafoe just shine in pictures like this. Brad Johnson has an uncanny likeness to Tom Berenger in some scenes; he comes off as likeable and would have had a big career if straight-arrow war movies were in vogue. A rather thin Tom Sizemore embodies the biggest War Movie Cliché of them all, by making sentimental talk about his family and wife before a big mission. The film could have skipped the action scene and gone right to his funeral. That these squarehead moviemakers never seem to learn how hilariously predictable a pattern this is, is a testament to the undying blindness of war movies.

The elaborate pre-digital effects are very impressive, with the SAM missiles handled rather well. Much of the banter and other military details have a ring of semi-authenticity, as well. Certainly not as offensive as the typical Top Gun or Rambo movie, Flight of the Intruder will please fans who like their war movies the way They Used to Make Them.

Paramount's DVD of Flight of the Intruder is a plain-wrap gem with a great transfer and crystal clear sound. The enhanced picture on a big monitor sparkles, and makes the elaborate special effects look even more real. There are no extras, not even a trailer.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Flight of the Intruder rates:
Movie: Good --
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 11, 2003


1. When it came time to be serious, Wead also wrote the superlative They Were Expendable, so he was no slouch.

2. My Air Force dad refused to call them pilots!

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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