Lionsgate // 1990 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // December 14th, 2009
It was someone else's war. But it was their sky.
A true story, kind of, sort of. For some reason, Air America takes a genuinely interesting and dramatic area of American intelligence history -- the CIA fronted Air America, Southern Asia, drug smuggling, propping up and dismantling of Communist governments, covert operations -- and turns it into a comedy. A box-office bomb back in 1990, Air America is now available on Blu-Ray.
In 1969, innocuous airline upstart Air America is, as a matter of fact, a CIA front running covert operations, supply drops, smuggling runs, and all manner of naughtiness into and out of Laos -- a place that President Richard Nixon assures the world Americans are not, as a matter of fact, in.
Given the dangerous work, Air America needs pilots, so they recruit reckless helicopter pilot Billy Covington (Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man) who has a hard time adapting to the lifestyle. His mentor, Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson, Signs), has seen it all, and Covington soon learns that Air America has many functions -- including making Ryack a tidy profit on the side smuggling guns and weapons into Laos. However, when a Senator arrives on a fact-finding mission from the United States, the entire Air America operation is in jeopardy and the CIA needs to find a patsy, fast. It wouldn't be fetching for the CIA to be caught in cahoots with a local warlord smuggling heroin, now would it? It's perfect timing -- a new pilot just arrived to frame the crime on!
A strange and awkward comedic affair, Air America is that rare genuine Hollywood miscalculation, a film with enough star power, budget, and concept behind it to make a tidy profit without breaking a sweat...that still fails utterly to find an audience. Most films that go down in flames you can laugh and wonder what the executives were thinking, the fatal flaws obvious a mile away. Every once in a while, a film unexpectedly flops, and flops bad, to the utter consternation of critic and audience alike. On paper, Air America should have worked. So what went wrong?
Having watched Air America twice now, I still have no idea what the film is really about. This is a perilously bad thing. Okay sure, the film has a plot, and it's a pretty straightforward one, but the moment I try and summarize it, you'll understand the crippling break in Air America's logic. Ready? Air America is a lighthearted buddy comedy set in a backdrop of opium smuggling and covert government black ops. Can you see it now? If this review were an automobile, I'd be the mechanic holding up a twisted hunk of metal, saying "Well, there's your problem."
Like a driver staring at an empty gasoline gauge and revving the motor fruitlessly, Air America runs out early on weak comedic laughs, deciding halfway through to change gears and scrounge up dramatic tension, and finds absolutely none. The film, based on actual events in the real-life CIA-front airline Air America, never manages to make its story compelling or dramatic -- and considering what an interesting treasure trove of real-life dramatis Air America has at its disposal, the waste is almost criminal. Set in Laos, with opium smuggling and the ever-present Vietnam War, gunfights, and explosions, Air America never strives to be anything more than a weak buddy comedy with some halfhearted stabs at moral indignation, so strained as to almost be an afterthought. Take a guy like Stephen Soderbergh and give him this material, and you'd have a fantastic drama on your hands.
Instead, Air America goes for the light comedy. Mel Gibson channels a more reserved Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon as the relaxed Gene Ryack here, casually flying all manner of contraband at the secret behest of the CIA. He doesn't seem bothered one way or the other -- life brings what it brings. He quips easily and openly with the new pilot, the neurotic and principled Billy Covington, who quickly protests Air America's mission, and isn't that how life goes? There's always time for some lighthearted ribbing and practical jokes when you're flying illegal heroin shipments twenty feet above the tree line in the jungle with military men shooting your plane with anti-aircraft guns.
The real irony here is that Gibson and Downey, Jr. actually work quite well together as a comedic duo. Truth be told, they'd have made a great buddy cop franchise, the two of them -- but shoving them in the cockpit of CIA planes in Laos is just sabotage. This is cruel career punishment for the both of them, akin to comedic torture, sticking funny people in an unfunny setting. Imagine putting Abbott and Costello in the cast of Platoon. The end result is just painful for all involved.
The film's 1080p transfer is nice, albeit a bit dated in that way that films from the late Eighties always look, all flat and soft. Detail is impressive and the transfer is clean, with only minimal spotting or damage in the print, and grain is natural and well-balanced. Colors lack the punch of modern-day cinematography, even in the vibrant jungle sequences where colors saturate much more pleasingly, but brightness and black levels are all satisfactory. For a film twenty years old, the presentation is quite good, striking a nice balance between high definition and respect for the quirks and tones of the source material.
Audio comes in a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 presentation, with a slightly thin dialogue track but pleasingly upbeat sonic activity throughout the channels. The roar of engines and airplanes light up the rear channels, with nice sonic placement and realistic bass response, and subtle environmental noises in the jungles, like chirping birds and insects, all come through nicely. It lacks the punch and in-your-face aggressiveness of modern-day action assaults, but is a perfect working example of how films sounded back in the early Nineties. The score, on the other hand, is a throwback to Eighties cheese, full of orchestra swells and bad Miami Vice guitar solos. I admit, it's kind of gloriously bad.
Extras are thin, but decent -- we get a commentary with writer/producer John Eskow, who discusses the cinematic and logistical challenges of shooting in the jungles, a theatrical trailer and three featurettes. "Pre-Flight: The Storyboards of Air America" brings five minutes of storyboards, "Flight Log" is a release-era featurette discussing the film and interviewing young Gibson, Downey Jr., and other actors, also about five minutes. The best feature of the bunch is "Return Flight: Revisiting Air America," a 20-minute retrospective with cast and crew recorded recently, discussing the mixed feelings of Air America twenty years later -- more on this in a moment.
It's hard not to feel sorry for Air America, just a little bit. There are good intentions here, and there may be even a good film buried beneath the surface. The supplementary feature "Return Flight: Revisiting Air America" shows genuine regret and pain in the face of cast and crew over the film failing to find an audience. For all its flaws, Air America was a loved film, and its creators and stars genuinely believed in it. In retrospect, you can almost see the thinking behind the failure.
No doubt wanting to capitalize much of Mel Gibson's popularity from the Lethal Weapon franchise, the cowboy gung-ho attitude and chipper banter between Gibson and Downey Jr. was obviously too attractive a gimmick for filmmakers to resist -- even if the banter didn't fit into the context of the film. The final effect was a disaster, but that's how things roll in Hollywood. For every failed Air America, you get a sardonic masterpiece like M*A*S*H.
A light and silly comedy mostly forgotten by the masses, Air America (Blu-Ray) delivers a fine technical presentation that should satisfy the half-dozen or so genuine fans of the film. For most, this will be but a curious rental on the DVD shelf of your local movie purveyor.
You could do worse for a rental, but Air America has no wings. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R